The rat is a widely used species for study of the auditory system. Psychophysical results from rats have shown an inability to discriminate sound source locations within a lateral hemifield, despite showing fairly sharp near-midline acuity. We tested the hypothesis that those characteristics of the rat's sound localization psychophysics are evident in the characteristics of spatial sensitivity of its cortical neurons. In addition, we sought quantitative descriptions of in vivo spatial sensitivity of cortical neurons that would support development of an in vitro experimental model to study cortical mechanisms of spatial hearing. We assessed the spatial sensitivity of single- and multiple-neuron responses in the primary auditory cortex (A1) of urethane-anesthetized rats. Free-field noise bursts were varied throughout 360° of azimuth in the horizontal plane at sound levels from 10 to 40 dB above neural thresholds. All neurons encountered in A1 displayed contralateral-hemifield spatial tuning in that they responded strongly to contralateral sound source locations, their responses cut off sharply for locations near the frontal midline, and they showed weak or no responses to ipsilateral sources. Spatial tuning was quite stable across a 30-dB range of sound levels. Consistent with rat psychophysical results, a linear discriminator analysis of spike counts exhibited high spatial acuity for near-midline sounds and poor discrimination for off-midline locations. Hemifield spatial tuning is the most common pattern across all mammals tested previously. The homogeneous population of neurons in rat area A1 will make an excellent system for study of the mechanisms underlying that pattern.
Keywords: anesthetized rat; level-invariant coding; neural coding; sound localization; spatial hearing.