Behavioural sensitivity to binaural spatial cues in ferrets: evidence for plasticity in the duplex theory of sound localization

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Abstract

For over a century, the duplex theory has guided our understanding of human sound localization in the horizontal plane. According to this theory, the auditory system uses interaural time differences (ITDs) and interaural level differences (ILDs) to localize low-frequency and high-frequency sounds, respectively. Whilst this theory successfully accounts for the localization of tones by humans, some species show very different behaviour. Ferrets are widely used for studying both clinical and fundamental aspects of spatial hearing, but it is not known whether the duplex theory applies to this species or, if so, to what extent the frequency range over which each binaural cue is used depends on acoustical or neurophysiological factors. To address these issues, we trained ferrets to lateralize tones presented over earphones and found that the frequency dependence of ITD and ILD sensitivity broadly paralleled that observed in humans. Compared with humans, however, the transition between ITD and ILD sensitivity was shifted toward higher frequencies. We found that the frequency dependence of ITD sensitivity in ferrets can partially be accounted for by acoustical factors, although neurophysiological mechanisms are also likely to be involved. Moreover, we show that binaural cue sensitivity can be shaped by experience, as training ferrets on a 1-kHz ILD task resulted in significant improvements in thresholds that were specific to the trained cue and frequency. Our results provide new insights into the factors limiting the use of different sound localization cues and highlight the importance of sensory experience in shaping the underlying neural mechanisms.

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