The auditory system must represent sounds with a wide range of statistical properties. One important property is the spectrotemporal contrast in the acoustic environment: the variation in sound pressure in each frequency band, relative to the mean pressure. We show that neurons in ferret auditory cortex rescale their gain to partially compensate for the spectrotemporal contrast of recent stimulation. When contrast is low, neurons increase their gain, becoming more sensitive to small changes in the stimulus, although the effectiveness of contrast gain control is reduced at low mean levels. Gain is primarily determined by contrast near each neuron's preferred frequency, but there is also a contribution from contrast in more distant frequency bands. Neural responses are modulated by contrast over timescales of ∼100 ms. By using contrast gain control to expand or compress the representation of its inputs, the auditory system may be seeking an efficient coding of natural sounds.
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