The barn owl's midbrain and forebrain contain neurons tuned to sound direction. The spatial receptive fields of these neurons result from sensitivity to combinations of interaural time (ITD) and level (ILD) differences over a broad frequency range. While a map of auditory space has been described in the midbrain, no similar topographic representation has been found in the forebrain. The first nuclei that belong exclusively to the forebrain and midbrain pathways are the thalamic nucleus ovoidalis (Ov) and the external nucleus of the inferior colliculus (ICx), respectively. The midbrain projects to the auditory thalamus before sharp spatial receptive fields emerge; although Ov and ICx receive projections from the same midbrain nuclei, they are not directly connected. We compared the spatial tuning in Ov and ICx. Thalamic neurons respond to a broader frequency range and their ITD and ILD tuning varied more across frequency. However, neurons in Ov showed spatial receptive fields as selective as neurons in ICx. Thalamic spatial receptive fields were tuned to frontal and contralateral space and correlated with their tuning to ITD and ILD. Our results indicate that spatial tuning emerges in both pathways by similar combination selectivity to ITD and ILD. However, the midbrain and the thalamus do not appear to repeat exactly the same processing, as indicated by the difference in frequency range and the broader tuning to binaural cues. The differences observed at the initial stages of these sound-localization pathways may reflect diverse functions and coding schemes of midbrain and forebrain.
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