Contrast gain control has recently been identified as a fundamental property of the auditory system. Electrophysiological recordings in ferrets have shown that neurons continuously adjust their gain (their sensitivity to change in sound level) in response to the contrast of sounds that are heard. At the level of the auditory cortex, these gain changes partly compensate for changes in sound contrast. This means that sounds which are structurally similar, but have different contrasts, have similar neuronal representations in the auditory cortex. As a result, the cortical representation is relatively invariant to stimulus contrast and robust to the presence of noise in the stimulus. In the inferior colliculus (an important subcortical auditory structure), gain changes are less reliably compensatory, suggesting that contrast- and noise-invariant representations are constructed gradually as one ascends the auditory pathway. In addition to noise invariance, contrast gain control provides a variety of computational advantages over static neuronal representations; it makes efficient use of neuronal dynamic range, may contribute to redundancy-reducing, sparse codes for sound and allows for simpler decoding of population responses. The circuits underlying auditory contrast gain control are still under investigation. As in the visual system, these circuits may be modulated by factors other than stimulus contrast, forming a potential neural substrate for mediating the effects of attention as well as interactions between the senses.
© 2014 The Authors. The Journal of Physiology © 2014 The Physiological Society.