Context-dependent plasticity in auditory processing is achieved in part by physiological mechanisms that link behavioral state to neural responses to sound. The neuromodulator serotonin has many characteristics suitable for such a role. Serotonergic neurons are extrinsic to the auditory system but send projections to most auditory regions. These projections release serotonin during particular behavioral contexts. Heightened levels of behavioral arousal and specific extrinsic events, including stressful or social events, increase serotonin availability in the auditory system. Although the release of serotonin is likely to be relatively diffuse, highly specific effects of serotonin on auditory neural circuitry are achieved through the localization of serotonergic projections, and through a large array of receptor types that are expressed by specific subsets of auditory neurons. Through this array, serotonin enacts plasticity in auditory processing in multiple ways. Serotonin changes the responses of auditory neurons to input through the alteration of intrinsic and synaptic properties, and alters both short- and long-term forms of plasticity. The infrastructure of the serotonergic system itself is also plastic, responding to age and cochlear trauma. These diverse findings support a view of serotonin as a widespread mechanism for behaviorally relevant plasticity in the regulation of auditory processing. This view also accommodates models of how the same regulatory mechanism can have pathological consequences for auditory processing.
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