Active listening is central to auditory cognition, supporting critical functions such as stream segregation, linguistic analysis and perceptual learning. To this end, the brain must accurately represent the physical properties of acoustic signals and subsequently parse sounds based on their behavioral relevance. Whereas the encoding of primary features such as amplitude and spectral content typically begins in specialized brainstem and midbrain circuits, the mechanisms by which sounds attain behavioral relevance are poorly understood. A long-standing assumption is that descending projections from auditory cortex, which contact most early ascending auditory circuits, play a critical role in ascribing behavioral relevance to sounds. Indeed, descending auditory cortical projections could provide an anatomical substrate for top-down signals to control the bottom-up encoding of acoustic features. Despite this presumed importance, little is known about the function of descending auditory cortical neurons in attentive listening, nor do we understand the biophysical mechanisms that dictate their contribution to central auditory processing. Our goal is to address these knowledge gaps in behaving mice by studying the descending pathway from auditory cortex to inferior colliculus, an auditory midbrain region critical for perceiving complex sounds. Our unpublished results support a working hypothesis whereby auditory cortico-collicular neurons encode learned information, thereby transmitting signals that amplify the representation of behaviorally relevant sound features in early auditory circuits. Our data further suggest that a key mechanism underlying the activity of auditory cortico-collicular neurons during active listening is the non-linear generation of dendritic spikes, powerful electrical events that initiate in the apical dendrites of cortical neurons and drive high-frequency burst firing at the soma. We propose testing these hypotheses using a unique combination of sub-cellular 2-photon Ca2+ imaging, optogenetics and behavioral assays in awake, head-fixed mice. The positive outcome will be to establish functional and mechanistic answers for the operation of a descending auditory cortical pathway during attentive listening, thereby shedding light on a critical yet poorly understood facet of the central auditory system.
Hearing disorders such as tinnitus, presbycusis, and noise-induced hearing loss are incredibly common and have long been recognized as public health epidemics. This project employs novel strategies to identify how feedback loops between high and low-level auditory centers contribute to hearing, which could eventually inspire new treatments for hearing disorders. More broadly, similar feedback loops occur across all sensory systems; these studies thus lay the conceptual groundwork to understand a general principle of mammalian sensory perception and higher-order brain function.