Investigations of auditory neuronal firing rate as a function of sound level have revealed a wide variety of rate-level function shapes, including neurons with nonmonotonic or level-tuned functions. These neurons have an unclear role in auditory processing but have been found to be quite common. In the present study of awake marmoset primary auditory cortex (A1) neurons, 56% (305 out of 544), when stimulated with tones at the highest sound level tested, exhibited a decrement in driven rate of at least 50% from the maximum. These nonmonotonic neurons demonstrated significantly lower response thresholds than monotonic neurons, although both populations exhibited thresholds skewed toward lower values. Nonmonotonic neurons significantly outnumbered monotonic neurons in the frequency range 6-13 kHz, which is the frequency range containing most marmoset vocalization energy. Spontaneous rate was inversely correlated with threshold in both populations, and spontaneous rates of nonmonotonic neurons had significantly lower values than spontaneous rates of monotonic neurons, although distributions of maximum driven rates were not significantly different. Finally, monotonicity was found to be organized within electrode penetrations like characteristic frequency but with less structure. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that nonmonotonic neurons play a unique role in representing sound level, particularly at the lowest sound levels and for complex vocalizations.
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