Motion selectivity as a neural mechanism for encoding natural conspecific vocalizations
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Natural sound, such as conspecific vocalizations and human speech, represents an important part of the sensory signals animals and humans encounter in their daily lives. This dissertation investigates the neural mechanisms involved in creating response selectivity for complex features of natural acoustic signals and demonstrates that selectivity for spectral motion cues provides a neural mechanism to encode communication signals in the auditory midbrain. Spectral motion is defined as the movement of sound energy upward or downward in frequency at a certain velocity, and is believed to provide the auditory system with an important perceptual cue in the processing of human speech. Using the Mexican free-tailed bat, tadarida brasiliensis, as a model system, this research examined the role of selectivity for spectral motion cues, such as direction and velocity, in creating response selectivity for specific features of the social communication signals emitted by these animals. We show that auditory neurons in the midbrain nucleus of the inferior colliculus (IC) are specifically tuned for the frequency-modulated (FM) direction and velocities found in their conspecific vocalizations. This close agreement between neural tuning and features of natural conspecific signals shows that auditory neurons have evolved to specifically encode features of signals that are vital for the survival of the animal. Furthermore, we find that the neural computations resulting in selectivity for spectral motion are analogous to mechanisms observed in selectivity for visual motion, suggesting the evolution of similar neural mechanisms across sensory modalities.