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Neural processing of auditory communication signals: From sensory transduction to sexual selection

Andreas V.M. Herz, Biozentrum LMU and Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Munich


Evolution has led to acoustic communication behaviors of fascinating complexity, which are made possible by sophisticated neural systems in both sender and receiver. Remarkably, even small insect auditory systems are capable of astounding computations. Some grasshoppers, for example, reliably detect gaps in conspecific songs as short as 1 msec, a performance level similar to that reached by birds and mammals.

These observations raise the question of how a minute insect auditory system is capable to process auditory signals reliably and with high temporal precision. Important insight will come from understanding the auditory periphery. It serves as a strategic bottleneck between the external world and further neural processing stages; every computation and behavioral decision must be based on the primary stimulus representation at the level of auditory receptors.

Understanding the interplay between the dynamics and function of these neurons requires answers to a broad range of questions, such as the following: Which physical sound attribute (e.g., sound pressure or energy) actually drives the receptor? What are the essential processing steps of auditory transduction and encoding? How do neural noise sources limit the system's performance? Is it possible to "read" the sensory input from the output of a single receptor? Are receptor neurons specifically tuned to behaviorally relevant features? The talk will present some answers to these general biophysics and neuroscience questions.