The sound pressure level (SPL), henceforth termed intensity, of acoustic signals is encoded in the central auditory system by neurons with different forms of intensity sensitivity. However, knowledge about the topographic organization of neurons with these different properties and hence about the spatial representation of intensity, especially at higher levels of the auditory pathway, is limited. Here we show that in the tonotopically organized primary auditory cortex (AI) of the cat there are orderly topographic organizations, along the isofrequency axis, of several neuronal properties related to the coding of the intensity of tones, viz. minimum threshold, dynamic range, best SPL, and non-monotonicity of spike count - intensity functions to tones of characteristic frequency (CF). Minimum threshold, dynamic range, and best SPL are correlated and alter periodically along isofrequency strips. The steepness of the high-intensity descending slope of spike count - intensity functions also varies systematically, with steepest slopes occurring in the regions along an isofrequency strip where low thresholds, narrow dynamic ranges and low best SPLs are found. As a consequence, CF-tones of various intensities are represented by orderly and, for most intensities, periodic, spatial patterns of distributed neuronal activity along an isofrequency strip. For low - to -moderate intensities, the mean relative activity along the entire isofrequency strip increases rapidly with intensity, with the spatial pattern of activity remaining quite constant along the strip. At higher intensities, however, the mean relative activity along the strip remains fairly constant with changes in intensity, but the spatial patterns change markedly. As a consequence of these effects, low- and high-intensity tones are represented by complementary distributions of activity alternating along an isofrequency strip. We conclude that in AI tone intensity is represented by two complementary modes, viz. discharge rate and place. Furthermore, the magnitude of the overall changes in the representation of tone intensity in AI appears to be closely related to psychophysical measures of loudness and of intensity discrimination.
- Auditory cortex
- Intensity discrimination