Sensory neurons are customarily characterized by one or more linearly weighted receptive fields describing sensitivity in sensory space and time. We show that in auditory cortical and thalamic neurons, the weight of each receptive field element depends on the pattern of sound falling within a local neighborhood surrounding it in time and frequency. Accounting for this change in effective receptive field with spectrotemporal context improves predictions of both cortical and thalamic responses to stationary complex sounds. Although context dependence varies among neurons and across brain areas, there are strong shared qualitative characteristics. In a spectrotemporally rich soundscape, sound elements modulate neuronal responsiveness more effectively when they coincide with sounds at other frequencies, and less effectively when they are preceded by sounds at similar frequencies. This local-context-driven lability in the representation of complex sounds-a modulation of "input-specific gain" rather than "output gain"-may be a widespread motif in sensory processing.
Copyright © 2016 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.