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date: 03 June 2020

The Superior Paraolivary Nucleus

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter summarizes the current concepts of the superior paraolivary nucleus (SPON)—a structure embedded in the superior olivary complex in the mammalian auditory brainstem. SPON is driven by input pathways from two of the most temporally secure neurons in the brain: the octopus cells in the cochlear nucleus and the neurons of the medial nucleus of the trapezoid body. These inputs activate spiking activity that marks the onset and offset of sound, the latter based on a rebound depolarization mechanism. This makes the SPON an excellent detector of transient sound energy. Robust detection of the coarse sound pattern over time further gives SPON the capacity to track the temporal envelope of complex sounds with supreme precision. Since the SPON circuitry is constant in mammals and resilient to sensory perturbation, it indicates its high survival value. A possible neuroevolutionary role of SPON in the processing of vocalizations is discussed.

Keywords: brainstem, auditory pathways, temporal processing, rebound spiking, feature detection, segmentation, prosodic stress pattern

The SPON Is Present in All Mammals

The superior olivary complex (SOC) comprises a group of morphologically-defined nuclei in the ventral brainstem. Within the SOC, the superior paraolivary nucleus (SPON) is a prominent GABAergic nucleus (González-Hernández, Mantolán-Sarmiento, González-González, & Pérez-González, 1996; Kulesza & Berrebi, 2000), which has been implicated in processing rhythmic sound cues of importance for the perception of vocalized communication (Felix et al., 2011; Kadner & Berrebi, 2008; Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011). Perceiving sound rhythms is especially important in humans, who rely on (p. 396) the ability to identify distinct speech units for language perception (Rosen, 1992) and speech production (Lieberman, 2002). Compared to other SOC nuclei, which are well-known for their role in deriving sound localization cues (McAlpine, 2005; Tollin, 2003) or as a model for studying the developmental organization of the auditory pathways (Kandler et al., 2009; Sanes & Friauf, 2000), the SPON has received relatively little attention. This chapter summarizes recent progress in understanding the role of the SPON for hearing, and its implications for interspecies communication.

The Superior Paraolivary Nucleus

Figure 14.1 Schematic representation of the superior olivary complex in humans, cats, bats, and rats. The lateral (LSO) and the medial superior olivary nuclei (MSO) vary in size depending on the animal’s natural acoustic niche (Heffner, 2004), whereas the superior paraolivary nucleus (SPON) and the medial nucleus of the trapezoid body (MNTB) are more uniformly represented throughout the animal chain. The nuclear structures are based on transverse brainstem sections and are inspired from, for example, Moore (2000); Zook & Casseday (1985).

Based on cytoarchitecture, the SPON (sometimes also referred to as the SPN) is a well-defined auditory brainstem nucleus in lower mammals, such as mice (Felix et al., 2011; Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011; Leijon et al., 2016), rats (Caminos et al., 2007; Kulesza & Berrebi, 2000), gerbils (Behrend et al., 2002; Dehmel et al., 2002; Stange et al., 2013), and guinea-pigs (Schofield, 1991; Schofield & Cant, 1991, 1992). In other species, cells located dorsomedially of the medial superior olive (MSO), referred to as the dorsomedial periolivary nucleus (DMPO), are commonly speculated to be the SPON homologue in, for example, bats (Grothe, 1994; Zook & Casseday, 1985;), cats (Adams, 1983; Spirou et al., 1990), chinchillas (Azeredo et al., 1999; Kelley et al., 1992), and primates (Bazwinsky et al., 2005; Moore & Moore, 1971; Strominger et al., 1977), including humans (Bazwinsky et al., 2003; Moore et al., 1998; Moore, 2000). Although studies to systematically characterize the physiological properties of DMPO in vivo are largely missing in the mustached bat, the medial SOC exhibit SPON-like properties in response to monaural sound stimulation (Grothe, 1994; Kulesza et al., 2003), thus showing it as being homologous to the rodent SPON (Grothe, 2000). Recently, the nomenclature in humans has shifted from the DMPO to the SPON (Kulesza, 2008, 2014; Kulesza & Grothe, 2015; Schmidt et al., 2010).

Numerous anatomical investigations of the SOC reveal that the SPON/DMPO is present in all mammals investigated thus far (see Figure 14.1). An inspection of the nuclear morphology in SOC brain sections containing the MSO, SPON/DMPO and medial nucleus of the trapezoid body (MNTB; Figure 14.1) demonstrate that these areas expand proportionally in line with the increase in brainstem size from small rodents to (p. 397) primates, including humans (Figure 14.1; Kulesza, 2008, 2014; Moore, 1987, 2000; Moore et al., 1998). The size of the SPON/DMPO (Moore & Moore, 1971), however, does not depend on the animals hearing range (Heffner, 2004). Thus, the SPON is a major part of the SOC in animals in which high-frequency hearing dominates, such as mice and rats (Kulesza et al., 2002), as well as those in which low-frequency hearing is more prominent, such as gerbils (Behrend et al., 2002; Dehmel et al., 2002; Stange et al., 2013) and guinea-pigs (Schofield, 1991; Schofield & Cant, 1991, 1992). Accordingly, species that capitalize on both high and low sound frequency cues, such as the cat (Heffner, 2004), exhibit a balanced ratio between the LSO, MSO and DMPO (Figure 14.1; Moore, 2000). The naked mole rat is a special case since it is most sensitive to very low-frequency sounds (<1 kHz; Lange et al., 2007), which may lead to an expansion of the SPON at the expense of the high frequency-sensitive LSO, a hypothesis that needs to be verified by identifying the SPON neurons using, for example, GABA markers.

The SPON Receives Monaural Temporal Information

In rodents, one set of afferents to the SPON come from a mixed population of octopus and multipolar stellate cells in the contralateral posteroventral cochlear nucleus (PVCN; Friauf & Ostwald, 1988; Saldaña et al., 2009; Schofield, 1995; Thompson & Thompson, 1991; Zook & Casseday, 1985). The multipolar stellate cell type has also been described as forming an ipsilateral projection from the PVCN to the SPON (Friauf & Ostwald, 1988). Recently, this view was challenged by Felix et al. (2017), who demonstrated that a focal injection of a retrograde tracer in the SPON of mice only labeled the octopus cells in the contralateral PVCN (see Figure 14.2), whereas virtually no multipolar stellate cells were labeled in either the ipsilateral or contralateral PVCN. No tracer was observed in the ventral acoustic stria or in the anteroventral cochlear nucleus (Felix et al., 2017). The latter result confirms previous studies in SPON of rodents (Friauf & Ostwald, 1988; Kuwabara et al., 1991), whereas in the cat there is conflicting evidence for a globular bushy cell projection from the contralateral anterior ventral cochlear nucleus (AVCN). to the DMPO (Smith et al., 1991; Spirou et al., 1990). However, the slightest spread of tracer into adjacent areas of the SOC targets globular bushy cells and multipolar stellate cells in, respectively, AVCN and PVCN on both sides of the brainstem (Felix et al., 2017). Therefore, the most parsimonious interpretation is that SPON receives a single input from the octopus cells located in the contralateral PVCN (Figure 14.2; Felix et al., 2017). A statistical analysis of miniature excitatory currents (mEPSCs) recorded and pharmacologically isolated in the SPON and LSO neurons lends further support to the concept of a single input to the principal neurons of these nuclei. In contrast, the lateral olivocochlear neurons, also residing in the LSO (Aschoff & Ostwald, 1987; Motts et al., 2008), but with distinct morphological and physiological properties from the principal (p. 398) neurons (Adam et al., 1999; Fujino et al., 1997; Leijon & Magnusson, 2014; Sterenborg et al., 2010), displayed evidence for two or more inputs (Felix et al., 2017; Gómez-Álvarez & Saldaña, 2016). Recordings from the SPON in vivo show that sound primarily actives the SPON from the contralateral ear (bat: Grothe, 1994; rabbit: Kuwada & Batra, 1999; gerbil: Behrend et al., 2002; Dehmel et al., 2002; rat: Kadner & Berrebi, 2008; Kulesza et al., 2003, 2007; mouse: Felix et al., 2011; Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011), although there have been reports of some responses, putatively from SPON neurons, that are binaural (Behrend et al., 2002; Dehmel et al., 2002). A monaural activation of the SPON, driven by octopus cells, is consistent with the hypothesis that the SPON extracts temporal information induced by broadband sounds (Felix et al., 2013, 2017; Gómez-Álvarez et al., 2018; Oertel et al., 2000; Rhode, 1998).

The Superior Paraolivary Nucleus

Figure 14.2 The superior paraolivary nucleus (SPON) connectome. The SPON receives direct excitatory input from the octopus cells in the contralateral posteroventral cochlear nucleus (PVCN), via the intermediate acoustic stria (Felix et al., 2017), and an indirect inhibitory glycinergic input from the medial nucleus of the trapezoid body (MNTB) via the globular bushy cells (GBCs) in the contralateral anteroventral cochlear nucleus (AVCN). The ipsilateral lateral nucleus of the trapezoid body (LNTB) provides an additional source of glycinergic inhibition of unknown function via GBCs in the ipsilateral AVCN. The SPON projects tonotopically to the ipsilateral inferior colliculus (IC) via the nuclei of the lateral lemniscus (NLL) (Saldaña et al., 2009; Viñuela et al., 2011). The SPON also projects to the ipsilateral and, to a lesser degree, to the contralateral tectal longitudinal column (TLC), the periaqueductal gray substance (PAG), and the deep layers of the contralateral superior colliculus (SC) in the midbrain tectum (Viñuela et al., 2011).

Another documented major projection to the SPON is from the ipsilateral principal neurons in the medial nucleus of the trapezoid body (MNTB; Figure 14.2; Banks & Smith, 1992; Bledsoe et al., 1990; Ford et al., 2009; Kuwabara & Zook, 1991, 1992; Sommer et al., 1993; Spangler et al., 1985; Warr, 1966). The MNTB neurons receive input from the globular bushy cells in the contralateral AVCN, the axons of which travel in the ventral acoustic stria and terminate with the calyx-of-Held endings onto the MNTB principal neurons (Kuwabara et al., 1991; Smith et al., 1991; Spirou et al., 1990). The MNTB-projection to the SPON gives rise to a powerful feed-forward glycinergic inhibition that quenches SPON activity during contralateral sound stimulation but, paradoxically, drives the neurons to spike at the sound offset (Kadner et al., 2006; Kulesza et al., 2007). Interestingly, a single afferent from the MNTB can branch and innervate several (p. 399) nuclei within the SOC (Kuwabara & Zook, 1991, 1992; Gómez-Álvarez & Saldaña, 2016; Sommer et al., 1993). It is not clear how these afferent collaterals from the MNTB contribute to sound processing in areas fulfilling vastly different roles for acoustic processing. Presumably, neuron-specific properties, such as voltage-operated mechanisms (Felix et al., 2011, 2013; Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011, 2015; Yassin et al., 2014), enable the SPON, perhaps in combination with the termination pattern in relation to the cellular geometry (Felix et al., 2013; Ollo & Schwartz, 1979), to decode specific aspects of the incoming signals. In addition, the SPON receives projections from the ipsilateral lateral nucleus of the trapezoid body (LNTB; Figure 14.2; Felix et al., 2017; Saldaña et al., 2009; Viñuela et al., 2011). The LNTB is innervated by ipsilateral collateral branches of the globular bushy cell axons, (Kuwabara et al., 1991; Spirou et al., 1990), thus providing the SPON with an ipsilateral inhibitory glycinergic (Magnusson et al., 2005; Roberts et al., 2014) projection of hitherto unknown function.

The SPON Relays Temporally Precise Inhibition

The main output from the SPON is a tonotopically organized inhibitory, GABAergic projection to the ipsilateral inferior colliculus (IC) via the nuclei of the lateral lemniscus (NLL; see Figure 14.2; Saldaña et al., 2009; Viñuela et al., 2011). The function of such tonotopic GABA-ergic drive from the SPON was recently tested by performing paired recordings from the SPON and the IC, which demonstrated that the selective blockade of SPON-derived inhibition decreased IC spiking precision in response to the envelope of amplitude-modulated sounds (Felix et al., 2015). This fit well with the envelope-synchronized spiking response to amplitude-modulated sounds recorded in SPON (Behrend et al., 2002; Felix et al., 2011; Grothe, et al., 1994; Kadner & Berrebi, 2008; Kulesza et al., 2003; Kuwada & Batra, 1999). The inhibitory output from the SPON would, therefore, be suitable to tune the IC neurons to sound envelope cues (Barsz, et al., 1998; Krishna & Semple, 2000; Zheng & Escabí, 2008) and periodicity patterns, that is, how often these coarse fluctuations occur (Langner, 1992; Rees & Palmer, 1989; Schreiner & Langner, 1988). It is tempting to speculate that the topographical representation of sound periodicity, visualized by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on the IC level (Baumann et al., 2011), may depend on inhibition from lower brainstem areas, such as the input from SPON. A shift in sensitivity from high to low modulation-frequencies in the ascending auditory pathways, from the cochlear nucleus to the IC (Frisina, 2001; Joris et al., 2004; Nelson & Carney, 2004), suggests that the auditory brainstem would be a suitable locus to perform the conversion needed to give rise to the IC periodicity map. The SPON is a suitable candidate for changing the coding strategy. Because rebound spiking in SPON neurons depends on the activation of slowly activating h-currents (Felix et al., 2011; Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., (p. 400) 2011), offset spiking to sound depends on relatively long-lasting MNTB activity, which results in temporal summation of the hyperpolarizing inputs (Felix et al., 2011). By acting as a low-pass filter, Ih-dependent rebound spiking in SPON would be well suited to encode slow changes in sound energy over time as it typically occurs in periodic natural sounds, such as speech (Rosen, 1992; Shannon et al., 1995). By providing robust inhibition, synchronized to the negative edge of sound segments, SPON may not only help to enhance the “peaks” of the envelope signal by unmasking excitation (Grothe, 1994; Yang & Pollak, 1997) or phasic disinhibition of inhibitory interneurons in the IC (Malmierca et al., 2009; Oliver & Morest, 1984), but could also trigger rebound spiking in the IC (Koch & Grothe, 2003; Nagtegaal & Borst, 2010; Sun & Wu, 2008; Tan et al., 2007). The slightly delayed SPON input could, therefore, contribute to further lowering the preferred modulation frequency of the neurons in the IC (Langner, 1992; Rees & Palmer, 1989; Schreiner & Langner, 1988), while inverting the sign of the auditory signal from excitation to inhibition in SPON would enhance the modulation depth of the IC envelope-response at both the “peaks” and the “troughs” (Felix et al., 2015). The “troughs” could, according to de Cheveigné’s cancellation model for pitch perception (1998), equally well serve as a periodicity cue as the “peaks.” Another suggested role for SPON-derived inhibition is related to post-stimulus inhibition, which produces a forward masking effect in the IC (Nelson et al., 2009; Salimi et al., 2017). This mechanism could further enhance the contrast between sound units and aid perception of communication sounds.

Ascending SPON axons continue from the ipsilateral IC and travel through the commissure of the IC (CoIC) before terminating in the tectal longitudinal column (TLC). The newly discovered TLC is a distinct group of reticular neurons spanning the midbrain tectum longitudinally, very close to the midline and immediately above the periaqueductal gray (PAG; Figure 14.2; Aparicio et al., 2010; Aparicio & Saldaña, 2014; Marshall et al., 2008; Saldaña et al., 2007, 2009; Viñuela et al., 2011). The SPON projects densely to the ipsilateral TLC, and sparsely to the contralateral TLC (Saldaña et al., 2009; Viñuela et al., 2011). A small fraction of the ascending SPON axons circumvent the IC and cross to innervate the deep layers of the contralateral superior colliculus (SC) and the PAG (Figure 14.2; Viñuela et al., 2011), which are multimodal areas expected to trigger automated motor actions in response to external and internal signals of importance for the organism’s survival (Holstege, 1998; Sparks & Hartwich-Young, 1989). Notably, injections of pseudorabies virus in the rabbit eyelid has recently demonstrated tentative evidence for a projection from the SPON to the superior salivatory nucleus (SSN; Wang et al., 2017). The SSN is a group of parasympathetic neurons that innervate the lacrimal, sublingual and submandibular glands (Tóth et al., 1999). Although a connection between the SPON and areas involved in autonomic regulation still has to be confirmed, it is tempting to speculate that the SPON, with its high sensitivity to the sound envelope (Behrend et al., 2002; Felix et al., 2011; Kadner & Berrebi, 2008; Kulesza et al., 2003; Kuwada & Batra, 1999), may be part of an old gateway mediating innate reactions to sounds, for instance, in response to the affective qualities of the voice (Pihan et al., 2008).

(p. 401) The SPON Receives Descending Projections but Is Most Likely Not a Major Part of the Medial Olivocochlear Efferent System

The SPON has long been considered to be a subdivision of the medial olivocochlear efferent system projecting from the brainstem to the cochlear nucleus and the cochlea. This concept builds mostly on anatomical studies performed in cats (Adams & Warr, 1976; Smith et al., 1991; Warr, 1975; Warr et al., 2002), but also studies in chinchillas (Azeredo et al., 1999), guinea-pig (Winter et al., 1989), mice (Ollo & Schwartz, 1979), and bats and rats (Aschoff & Ostwald, 1987). A close, specific, examination of the periolivary cells in the cat demonstrated that the ventromedial part of the SOC, including the SPON, the MNTB and the ventral nucleus of the trapezoid body (VNTB), are indeed targeted by the retrograde transporter HRP injected in the cochlea (Adams, 1983). However, the SPON was also targeted by HRP-injections into the ipsilateral IC. These IC retrogradely labeled neurons far outnumbered those that projected back to the cochlear nucleus or cochlea and importantly, were other neurons than the efferent ones (Adams, 1983; Adams & Warr, 1976). Instead, the majority of the cochlear-projecting neurons were confined to the VNTB (Adams, 1983). This result is consistent with other species that demonstrate that cholinergic neurons, known to be the main neurotransmitter of the olivocochlear system (Simmons, 2002), are predominantly located within the LSO and the VNTB (human: Moore et al., 1999; monkey: Thompson & Thompson, 1986; guinea-pig: Motts et al., 2008; gerbil: Kaiser et al., 2011; hamster: Simmons et al., 1999; rat; Yao & Godfrey, 1998; mouse: Brown & Levine, 2008; Leijon & Magnusson, 2014). In a rat study that traced the inputs from the SOC to the cochlea, only neurons in the LSO and the VNTB were highlighted; thus, White & Warr (1983) concluded that the VNTB is the only periolivary nucleus that has been invariably targeted by anatomical tract tracing of the olivocochlear efferent system in all species studied thus far.

Corticofugal projections primarily target the VNTB (Coomes Peterson, & Schofield, 2007; Coomes & Schofield, 2004; Feliciano et al., 1995; Mulders & Robertson, 2000), and more rarely the SPON/DMPO (Coomes & Schofield, 2004; Coomes Peterson & Schofield, 2007; Feliciano et al., 1995); however, more extensive descending cortical input to the SPON has been described in the gerbil (Budinger et al., 2000; 2013). A study combining tracer injections into the cortex and the IC revealed that corticofugal fibers predominantly connect to the ipsilateral SPON neurons projecting to the ipsilateral IC, and to a lesser degree the contralateral SPON neurons that project to the ipsilateral IC (Coomes Peterson & Schofield, 2007). The ipsilateral IC is, in itself, a source of descending input to the SPON (see Figure 14.2; Caicedo & Herbert, 1993; Vetter et al., 1993), indicating that there is reciprocal contact between the SPON and its ascending (p. 402) targets. In analogy with this notion, the SPON is reciprocally connected to the ipsilateral TLC (Figure 14.2; Aparicio & Saldaña, 2014; Viñuela et al., 2011). It is also worth mentioning that there is a thalamic input to the SPON, consisting of a bilateral projection from the subparafascicular nucleus (SPF) with an ipsilateral dominance (Yasui et al., 1992). The SPF is, as the auditory cortex, also reciprocally connected with the external layers of the IC (LeDoux et al., 1985). The external IC region (shell region) is involved in adaptive processes that participate in the alignment of the external representation of the environment (Gutfreund & Knudsen, 2006; Knudsen & Konishi, 1978) based on its multiple sensory inputs (Jain & Shore, 2006). Strong feedback arising from such extralemniscal pathways, via the SPF to the SPON, implies that the ascending relay of auditory information routed via the SPON may be modulated in a “top-down” manner.

Rebound Spiking Enables a High Fidelity Response to Sound Rhythms in SPON Neurons

SPON activity is characteristically triggered at the cessation of contralateral sound stimulation, resulting in an offset response (see Figure 14.3A), which has been documented in vivo in all mammals studied so far (bat: Grothe et al., 1994; rabbit: Kuwada & Batra, 1999; gerbil: Behrend et al., 2002; Dehmel et al., 2002; rat: Kadner & Berrebi, 2008; Kulesza et al., 2003; 2007; mouse: Felix et al., 2011; 2013; Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011). In addition, the SPON exhibits well-timed transient spiking at the sound onset (Figure 14.3A; Behrend et al., 2002; Dehmel et al., 2002; Felix et al., 2013, 2015; Grothe, 1994; Kulesza et al., 2003; Kuwada & Batra, 1999). This typical on-off spiking behavior is driven by, respectively, the temporally specialized octopus cells (Golding et al., 1999) and the MNTB neurons (Klug & Trussell, 2006) has been speculated to convey information about the coarse temporal sound structure. Periodicity patterns, such as abrupt changes in sound energy (Kadner & Berrebi, 2008; Kulesza et al., 2003), silent gaps in ongoing sounds (Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011), or the temporal envelope of sounds (Felix et al., 2011; 2013; Grothe, 1994; Kuwada & Batra, 1999), are examples of cues that would be compatible with the response properties of the SPON. In line with the notion that the SPON is suited to faithfully transmission sound rhythms, the SPON neurons fire with high precision in synchrony with more temporally complex stimuli than tones (see Figure 14.3B). For instance, the SPON phase-locks extremely well to the envelope of sinusoidally amplitude-modulated sounds (Figure 14.3B; Behrend et al., 2002; Felix et al., 2011, 2013; Kadner & Berrebi, 2008; Kulesza et al., 2003; Kuwada & Batra, 1999), implying that the on-off-spiking (Figure 14.3A) is acting in tandem to ensure precise spiking with the upstroke of the signal (Figure 14.3B). (p. 403)

The Superior Paraolivary Nucleus

Figure 14.3 Electrophysiological responses of superior paraolivary nucleus (SPON) neurons. (A) The typical SPON neuron response recorded in an anesthetized animal, elicited by a pure tone at the neuron’s best frequency, that is, at 3 kHz, and presented at the contralateral ear, characteristically triggers spiking at the onset and at the offset of the sound. Note that there is no spiking during the actual tone presentation since the SPON is inhibited by its medial nucleus of the trapezoid body (MNTB) input. The preceding onset response is elicited by excitation from the octopus cells. (B) Presentation of a sinusoidal amplitude modulation of the 3 kHz pure tone produces spiking activity, which phase-locks to the envelope of the modulated tone. (C) The underlying cellular mechanism for the sound-evoked offset response in the SPON neuron (A) builds upon the membrane potential rebounding to more depolarized levels at the cessation of a hyperpolarization. When the rebound depolarization reaches the spike threshold, action potentials are elicited. Rebound spiking is abolished by applying the T-type calcium channel blocker Mibefradil and the HCN-channel blocker ZD7288, verifying that these two voltage-operated cation channels act in tandem to cause the rebound depolarization. (D) Three SPON response types are found based on the firing pattern triggered by depolarizing intracellular current steps in vitro. Onset neurons typically only fire one or a few spikes, while adapting and burst neurons fire multiple spikes, the latter with an initial burst of spikelets.

Figures are adapted from Felix et al. (2011, 2013).

The SPON’s spiking response is suppressed during the sound presentation (Figure 14.3A; Kulesza et al., 2003), due to the fact that the SPON is subjected to powerful glycinergic inhibition when activated by tone stimulation at the contralateral ear (Kulesza et al., 2007; Kuwabara et al., 1991). Pharmacological blockade of glycine receptors in the SPON has confirmed that the inhibitory drive from the MNTB is essential for generating the transient offset spiking response (Kulesza et al., 2007). The cellular mechanism underlying the offset response in vivo has (p. 404) been causally linked to rebound spiking by studying SPON neurons in vitro (Felix et al., 2011; Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011). Rebound spiking occurs when the membrane potential depolarizes abruptly after hyperpolarization (Aizenman & Linden, 1999) for instance, caused by glycine receptor activation (Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011). In SPON neurons, the rebound depolarization builds upon activation of two voltage-dependent currents: the non-selective cation h-current (Ih) and the low voltage-activated calcium current of T-type (see Figure 14.3D; Felix et al., 2011; Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011). The Ih is partially activated at the resting membrane potential, but activates fully at more negative voltages with a V1/2 around –90 mV in SPON (Felix et al., 2011; Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011). The depolarizing effect of the Ih on the membrane potential is manifested as a “voltage-sag” when a hyperpolarizing current is injected into the neurons (see Figure 14.3C; Felix et al., 2011; Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011), as previously demonstrated in auditory brainstem neurons (Koch & Grothe, 2003; Nagtegaal & Borst, 2010; Sun & Wu, 2008; Tan et al., 2007). The non-inactivating property of the Ih (Robinson & Siegelbaum, 2003) rapidly depolarizes the neuron upon release from hyperpolarization, which can exceed action potential threshold, leading to a Na+-spike (Figure 14.3D; Felix et al., 2011; Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011). This rebound spiking mechanism depends on both the duration and strength of the preceding hyperpolarization (inhibition) in SPON neurons (Felix et al., 2011; Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011). Inhibition-driven hyperpolarization in the SPON neuron is enhanced by an extraordinarily low (~ –100 mV) chloride reversal potential (Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011; Löhrke et al., 2005). Another mechanism that enables the rebound depolarization to reach spike threshold is the T-type calcium current (Figure 14.3C; Felix et al., 2011; Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011). Due to its activation properties (Pérez-Reyes, 2003), the T-type calcium current operates in a limited voltage range and depends on intermittent hyperpolarizations for its deinactivation (McCormick & Huguenard, 1992). Periodic influx of calcium through T-type channels may underlie network-related theta oscillations (Dickson et al., 2000; Fisahn et al., 2002; Pape & McCormick, 1989; Strohmann et al., 1994) or rhythmic pacemaker activity (Park et al., 2010; Steriade et al., 1993) in neurons. A subclass of SPON neurons located in its dorsolateral quadrant show complex rebound spiking driven by T-type currents (Felix et al., 2011, 2013; Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2011; Leijon et al., 2016). SPON neurons responding in vitro with single versus complex spiking at the rebound are likely to relate to the offset-response types: offset transient and offset-chopper, documented in vivo (Kulesza et al., 2003). The functional significance of a calcium-dependent, robust, but temporally less defined offset spiking response in a subset of SPON neurons remains to be explored. Importantly, rebound spiking has been unequivocally linked to SPON’s physiological response to sounds in living animals. Blocking the Ih and the T- type calcium current with specific antagonists ZD7288 and Mibefradil, while simultaneously presenting a tone at the contra-ear, invariably abolishes offset spiking in SPON in a reversible manner (Figure 14.3A, C; Felix et al., 2011).

(p. 405) The SPON Develops Properties Compatible with Precise Spiking

The developmental plasticity of SOC neurons and their inputs are well investigated (reviewed elsewhere: e.g., Hoffpauir et al., 2009; Kandler et al., 2009). Although earlier studies have demonstrated that SPON neurons are subjected to early postnatal developmental plasticity (Caicedo et al., 1998; Friauf, 2000; Friauf et al., 1999; Kandler & Friauf, 1995; Löhrke et al., 2005), it is only recently that we have begun to understand the development of the SPON’s cellular properties, mostly as a result of intracellular patch-clamp recordings in acute brain slices in mice. The period of hearing onset, which occurs at P10–P12 in mice (Mikaelian & Ruben 1965), is commonly used to demark the period around which developmental plasticity occurs in the SPON (Felix et al., 2011; Felix & Magnusson, 2016; Leijon et al., 2016). The most important finding is that the membrane time constant of SPON neurons decreases to a value of around ~3ms during the weeks surrounding hearing onset (Felix et al., 2013). This intrinsic membrane property is related to a strong up-regulation of the Ih in SPON neurons (Leijon et al., 2016). Since the Ih is constitutively active in SPON neurons at the resting membrane potential, it lowers the membrane time constant which supports fast processing of the synaptic inputs (Felix & Magnusson, 2016). SPON neurons share the fast integrative property with other SOC neurons (Chirila et al., 2007; Hassfurth et al., 2009; Kandler & Friauf 1995; Magnusson et al., 2005; Sanes 1993; Scott et al., 2005, thus emphasizing the importance of the SOC for preserving temporal information. A fast membrane time constant also promotes brief action potentials (~1ms) in the SPON (Felix et al., 2013), providing further support for the idea that the SPON is specialized for extracting and relaying information about transient events by integrating synaptic input from temporally specialized pathways, that is, the octopus cell (Felix et al., 2017) and the MNTB pathway (Kuwabara et al., 1991).

The developmental aspects of the excitatory input to SPON were recently explored by stimulating the fibers of the intermediate acoustic stria around hearing onset in brainstem slices from mice (Felix & Magnusson, 2016). By comparing the ratio of minimal and maximal stimulation of the input fibers, it was shown that the SPON receives few excitatory input fibers, albeit with high release probability, throughout the postnatal maturation of the auditory brainstem (Felix & Magnusson, 2016). A strong, all-or-nothing excitation in SPON neurons is consistent with one type of excitatory input (Felix & Magnusson, 2016), giving rise to a well-defined onset response to sounds in vivo (Behrend et al., 2002; Dehmel et al., 2002; Felix et al., 2013; Grothe, 1994; Kulesza et al., 2003; Kuwada & Batra, 1999). It is worth mentioning here that when the SPON is subjected to depolarizing steps, equivalent to strong supra-threshold excitation, the corresponding firing pattern clearly reveals three response groups: onset spiking neurons that respond with a single spike, burst spiking neurons, and adapting neurons (p. 406) responding with sustained spiking that is adaptive (see Figure 14.3D; Felix et al., 2013). Since the ratio between response groups does not change with auditory development (Felix et al., 2013), this subunit classification probably reflects the postsynaptic properties of the SPON neurons (Felix et al., 2011, 2013) rather than differential connectivity (Felix et al., 2017). In line with this notion, the dendritic morphology (Ollo & Schwartz, 1979) correlates with the response groups in the SPON neurons independently of their developmental stage (Felix et al., 2013).

The SPON Is Resilient to Sensory Deprivation

Despite a consensus regarding the importance of preserving rhythmical sound information for an optimal outcome of auditory prostheses in the deaf condition (Rauschecker & Shannon, 2002; Wilson et al., 1991), the SPON has not been investigated thoroughly in the deaf or sensory deprived condition. Recently, the influence of congenital deafness on the postnatal development of SPON was investigated (Leijon et al., 2016) in mice lacking activity in the auditory nerve due to genetic deletion of the voltage-gated L-type Ca2+ channel isoform (Platzer et al., 2000). A sequence of cellular plasticity compensated for the sensory deprivation and rescued the rebound spiking in the deaf SPON. At an early postnatal age, corresponding to pre-hearing onset in the sensory activity-deprived SPON neurons, calcium currents compensate for low Ih levels and rescue the rebound depolarization. Later, at an equivalent post-hearing onset age, hyperpolarization-activated cyclic nucleotide-gated ion (HCN)2-channels are more strongly expressed than HCN1-channels, which upregulate the Ih to normal levels comparable to the hearing SPON (Leijon et al., 2016). Presumably, the HCN2 channel subtype, being less voltage sensitive, makes the SPON neurons more excitable (Kopp-Scheinpflug et al., 2015). The stereotyped timeline of compensatory mechanisms allowing for near normal development of rebound spiking even in absence of sensory inputs to SPON implies that the final set point of excitability may be under genetic control in these neurons. The robustness of the SPON circuitry to sensory perturbation is further illustrated by genetic ablation of its main inhibitory input from the MNTB, which surprisingly results in still normal inhibitory responses in the SPON (Altieri et al., 2014; Jalabi et al., 2013). The inhibitory input from the ipsilateral LNTB (Felix et al., 2017; Viñuela et al., 2011), could possibly be a vestigial pathway, which can serve as a replacement for inhibition in such conditions. The fact that the pathways and cellular mechanisms underlying the processing of the coarse temporal sound cues are preserved in the sensory deprived SPON could be a key aspect in the success of cochlear implants. These devices, which provide means of hearing to deaf individuals by conveying temporal envelope cues (Bacon & Viemeister, 1985) directly to the brain by electrical train stimulation of the auditory nerve—that is, providing (p. 407) speech rhythm cues (Rauschecker & Shannon, 2002; Wilson et al., 1991) —could hypothetically be dependent on an intact SPON circuitry.

The SPON: Early-Level Processing of Prosodic Information?

The serial nature of communicating sounds demands that the auditory system can perceive the vocalizations as single elements, preserve their temporal sequence, and simultaneously segregate them from other sounds, that is, sustained background noise (Shamma & Micheyl, 2010). Accordingly, detection of intervals in between the communicative sound elements or steep amplitude fluctuations is crucial for speech perception (Bertoncini et al., 2009; Drullman et al., 1994; Shannon et al., 1995; Smith et al., 2002). The frequency analysis performed by the cochlea is an important tool for analyzing complex sounds (Bidelman & Bhagat, 2017; Licklider, 1951), but how temporal patterns carried by the voice are singled out and preserved by neural activity in the brain is less well understood.

Mouse vocalizations are characterized by a rich repertoire of social calls (Arriaga et al., 2012; Ehret & Bernecker, 1986; Gaub & Ehret, 2005; Grimsley et al., 2011, 2016; Liu et al., 2006, Portfors, 2007), including mouse courtship song (Holy & Guo, 2005; reviewed by Egnor & Seagraves, 2016). There are theories that the perception of communication sounds specifically builds on the mammalian auditory system’s inherent sensitivities to detect small differences or discontinuities in sound, giving rise to auditory contrasts (Kuhl, 1986). Indeed, the sensitivity to auditory contrasts in harmonically structured vocalizations coincides in humans and mice (Ehret, 2005; Ehret & Riecke, 2002; Geissler & Ehret, 2002). If such common basic-biological rules exist for the auditory processing of temporal and tonal information embedded in vocalizations, it establishes an important evolutionary connection between animal communication and human speech and language perception (Kuhl, 1986). Given that the production of innate vocalizations, such as laughter, are conserved on a midbrain level in both rats and humans (Holstege & Subramanian, 2016; Panksepp, 2007; Panksepp & Burgdorf, 2003), it is tempting to suggest that the neural substrate for auditory processing of non-syntactic communication cues, such as voice prosody recognized and used by infants to communicate with a parent (Gervain & Werker, 2013; Mampe et al., 2009; Sambeth et al., 2008), critically builds on subcortical processes that extract the sound envelope rhythm. We hypothesize that rhythmic voice modulations, a capacity rooted in the concept of proto-musicality (Bannan, 2012; Bryant, 2013; Falk, 2004; Fitch, 2006; Panksepp & Trevarthen, 2009), is at least partially extracted in the evolutionarily hardwired SPON circuitry (Jalabi et al., 2013; Leijon et al., 2016; Löhrke et al., 2005). We further suggested that such tonal patterns extracted on a brainstem level (Musacchia et al., 2007) may be of importance for driving the development of language and other social communication (p. 408) skills in a bottom-up brain-mind maturation process (Aitken & Trevarthen, 1997; Panksepp, 2015; Panksepp & Trevarthen, 2009). Interestingly, the SPON is malformed in autistic subjects (Kulesza & Mangunay, 2008), as well as in animal models of autism (Lukose et al., 2011). Studying the SPON in autistic animal models may help us to better understand human conditions that are related to difficulties in processing rhythmic information in socially-relevant communication sounds, including centrally rooted auditory processing disorders (Bamiou et al., 2001), developmental dyslexia (Goswami, 2015) and autistic spectrum disorders (Trevarthen & Delafield-Butt, 2013).


This chapter highlights the current concepts regarding the SPON from phylogenetic, developmental, mechanistic, and functional points of view. It is speculated that the SPON, being a highly conserved nucleus across mammals, plays a role in processing vocalizations and other natural sounds by decoding sound rhythms and other temporal patterns. To better understand the hierarchically structured abilities to use sound rhythms for interspecies communication, including human speech, it is important to reveal the basic biological processes in animal models, which reduce the level of communicative complexity. Knowledge gained from studying how the brain analyzes the acoustic aspects of voiced communication in animal models will eventually help us to understand various human communication disorders that are rooted in temporal processing deficits or affective-emotional communicative dysfunctions, such as autism. The genetic basis underlying variations in sensory processing is only in its infancy. More nuanced animal models of communication disorders, for instance, taking into account the level of speaking fluency, or mice with communication learning disabilities, applied together with behavioral perception tasks, provide a tantalizing prospect of shedding light on the biology of spoken language in all its forms.

Dedicated to the late Jaak Panksepp—a great scholar and friend


This chapter was written during a scholarship from The Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología—CONACYT (M. Gómez-Álvarez; grant 665699).


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