The thalamocortical pathway is the main route of sensory information to the cerebral cortex. Vision, touch, hearing, taste, and balance all depend on the integrity of this pathway that connects the thalamic structures receiving sensory input with the cortical areas specialized in each sensory modality. Only the ancient sense of smell is independent of the thalamus, gaining access to cortex through more anterior routes. While the thalamocortical pathway targets different layers of the cerebral cortex, its main stream projects to the middle layers and has axon terminals that are dense, spatially restricted, and highly specific in their connections. The remarkable specificity of these thalamocortical connections allows for a precise reconstruction of the sensory dimensions that need to be most finely sampled, such as spatial acuity in vision and sound frequency in hearing. The thalamic axon terminals also segregate topographically according to their stimulus preferences, providing a simple principle to build cortical sensory maps: neighboring values in sensory space are represented by neighboring points within the cortex. Thalamocortical processing is not static. It is continuously modulated by the brain stem and corticothalamic feedback based on the level of attention and alertness, and during sleep or general anesthesia. When alert, visual thalamic responses become stronger, more reliable, more sustained, more effective at sampling fast changes in the scene, and more linearly related to the stimulus. The high firing rates of the alert state make thalamocortical synapses chronically depressed and excitatory synaptic potentials less dependent on temporal history, improving even further the linear relation between stimulus and response. In turn, when alertness wanes, the thalamus reduces its firing rate, and starts generating spike bursts that drive large postsynaptic responses and keep the cortex responsive to sudden stimulus changes.
Jose M. Alonso and Harvey A. Swadlow
Age-related hearing loss affects over half of the elderly population, yet it remains poorly understood. Natural aging can cause the input to the brain from the cochlea to be progressively compromised in most individuals, but in many cases the cochlea has relatively normal sensitivity and yet people have an increasingly difficult time processing complex auditory stimuli. The two main deficits are in sound localization and temporal processing, which lead to poor speech perception. Animal models have shown that there are multiple changes in the brainstem, midbrain, and thalamic auditory areas as a function of age, giving rise to an alteration in the excitatory/inhibitory balance of these neurons. This alteration is manifest in the cerebral cortex as higher spontaneous and driven firing rates, as well as broader spatial and temporal tuning. These alterations in cortical responses could underlie the hearing and speech processing deficits that are common in the aged population.
Understanding the principles by which sensory systems represent natural stimuli is one of the holy grails of neuroscience. In the auditory system, the study of the coding of natural sounds has a particular prominence. Indeed, the relationships between neural responses to simple stimuli (usually pure tone bursts)—often used to characterize auditory neurons—and complex sounds (in particular natural sounds) may be complex. Many different classes of natural sounds have been used to study the auditory system. Sound families that researchers have used to good effect in this endeavor include human speech, species-specific vocalizations, an “acoustic biotope” selected in one way or another, and sets of artificial sounds that mimic important features of natural sounds. Peripheral and brainstem representations of natural sounds are relatively well understood. The properties of the peripheral auditory system play a dominant role, and further processing occurs mostly within the frequency channels determined by these properties. At the level of the inferior colliculus, the highest brainstem station, representational complexity increases substantially due to the convergence of multiple processing streams. Undoubtedly, the most explored part of the auditory system, in term of responses to natural sounds, is the primary auditory cortex. In spite of over 50 years of research, there is still no commonly accepted view of the nature of the population code for natural sounds in the auditory cortex. Neurons in the auditory cortex are believed by some to be primarily linear spectro-temporal filters, by others to respond to conjunctions of important sound features, or even to encode perceptual concepts such as “auditory objects.” Whatever the exact mechanism is, many studies consistently report a substantial increase in the variability of the response patterns of cortical neurons to natural sounds. The generation of such variation may be the main contribution of auditory cortex to the coding of natural sounds.