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Creutzig, Felix; Wohlgemuth, Sandra; Stumpner, Andreas; Benda, Jan; Ronacher, Bernhard; Herz, Andreas V. M. (2009): Timescale-invariant representation of acoustic communication signals by a bursting neuron. In: The journal of neuroscience, Vol. 29, Nr. 8: S. 2575-2580




Acoustic communication often involves complex sound motifs in which the relative durations of individual elements, but not their absolute durations, convey meaning. Decoding such signals requires an explicit or implicit calculation of the ratios between time intervals. Using grasshopper communication as a model, we demonstrate how this seemingly difficult computation can be solved in real time by a small set of auditory neurons. One of these cells, an ascending interneuron, generates bursts of action potentials in response to the rhythmic syllable-pause structure of grasshopper calls. Our data show that these bursts are preferentially triggered at syllable onset; the number of spikes within the burst is linearly correlated with the duration of the preceding pause. Integrating the number of spikes over a fixed time window therefore leads to a total spike count that reflects the characteristic syllable-to-pause ratio of the species while being invariant to playing back the call faster or slower. Such a timescale-invariant recognition is essential under natural conditions, because grasshoppers do not thermoregulate; the call of a sender sitting in the shade will be slower than that of a grasshopper in the sun. Our results show that timescale-invariant stimulus recognition can be implemented at the single-cell level without directly calculating the ratio between pulse and interpulse durations.