The role of timing in the brain stem auditory nuclei of vertebrates

Annu Rev Physiol. 1999;61:497-519. doi: 10.1146/annurev.physiol.61.1.497.


Vertebrate animals gain biologically important information from environmental sounds. Localization of sound sources enables animals to detect and respond appropriately to danger, and it allows predators to detect and localize prey. In many species, rapidly fluctuating sounds are also the basis of communication between conspecifics. This information is not provided directly by the output of the ear but requires processing of the temporal pattern of firing in the tonotopic array of auditory nerve fibers. The auditory nerve feeds information through several parallel ascending pathways. Anatomical and electrophysiological specializations for conveying precise timing, including calyceal synaptic terminals and matching axonal conduction times, are evident in several of the major ascending auditory pathways through the ventral cochlear nucleus and its nonmammalian homologues. One pathway that is shared by all higher vertebrates makes an ongoing comparison of interaural phase for the localization of sound in the azimuth. Another pathway is specifically associated with higher frequency hearing in mammals and is thought to make use of interaural intensity differences for localizing high-frequency sounds. Balancing excitation from one ear with inhibition from the other in rapidly fluctuating signals requires that the timing of these synaptic inputs be matched and constant for widely varying sound stimuli in this pathway. The monaural nuclei of the lateral lemniscus, whose roles are not understood (although they are ubiquitous in higher vertebrates), receive input from multiple pathways that encode timing with precision, some through calyceal endings.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Auditory Pathways / physiology*
  • Brain Stem / physiology*
  • Cochlea / physiology
  • Ear / physiology
  • Humans
  • Synapses / physiology
  • Time Factors
  • Vertebrates / physiology*
  • Vestibulocochlear Nerve / physiology