Extracellular field potentials (EFP) are widely used to evaluate in vivo neural activity, but identification of multiple sources and their relative contributions is often ambiguous, making the interpretation of the EFP difficult. We have therefore analyzed a model EFP from a simple brainstem circuit with separable pre- and postsynaptic components to determine whether we could isolate its sources. Our previous papers had shown that the barn owl neurophonic largely originates with spikes from input axons and synapses that terminate on the neurons in the nucleus laminaris (NL) (Kuokkanen PT, Wagner H, Ashida G, Carr CE, Kempter R. J Neurophysiol 104: 2274-2290, 2010; Kuokkanen PT, Ashida G, Carr CE, Wagner H, Kempter R. J Neurophysiol 110: 117-130, 2013; McColgan T, Liu J, Kuokkanen PT, Carr CE, Wagner H, Kempter R. eLife 6: e26106, 2017). To determine how much the postsynaptic NL neurons contributed to the neurophonic, we recorded EFP responses in NL in vivo. Power spectral analyses showed that a small spectral component of the evoked response, between 200 and 700 Hz, could be attributed to the NL neurons' spikes, while nucleus magnocellularis (NM) spikes dominate the EFP at frequencies ≳1 kHz. Thus, spikes of NL neurons and NM axons contribute to the EFP in NL in distinct frequency bands. We conclude that if the spectral components of source types are different and if their activities can be selectively modulated, the identification of EFP sources is possible. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Extracellular field potentials (EFPs) generate clinically important signals, but their sources are incompletely understood. As a model, we have analyzed the auditory neurophonic in the barn owl's nucleus laminaris. There the EFP originates predominantly from spiking in the afferent axons, with spectral power ≳1 kHz, while postsynaptic laminaris neurons contribute little. In conclusion, the identification of EFP sources is possible if they have different spectral components and if their activities can be modulated selectively.
Keywords: action potential; auditory coincidence detector; extracellular field potential; local field potential; neurophonic.