Evolution of Sound Source Localization Circuits in the Nonmammalian Vertebrate Brainstem

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The earliest vertebrate ears likely subserved a gravistatic function for orientation in the aquatic environment. However, in addition to detecting acceleration created by the animal's own movements, the otolithic end organs that detect linear acceleration would have responded to particle movement created by external sources. The potential to identify and localize these external sources may have been a major selection force in the evolution of the early vertebrate ear and in the processing of sound in the central nervous system. The intrinsic physiological polarization of sensory hair cells on the otolith organs confers sensitivity to the direction of stimulation, including the direction of particle motion at auditory frequencies. In extant fishes, afferents from otolithic end organs encode the axis of particle motion, which is conveyed to the dorsal regions of first-order octaval nuclei. This directional information is further enhanced by bilateral computations in the medulla and the auditory midbrain. We propose that similar direction-sensitive neurons were present in the early aquatic tetrapods and that selection for sound localization in air acted upon preexisting brain stem circuits like those in fishes. With movement onto land, the early tetrapods may have retained some sensitivity to particle motion, transduced by bone conduction, and later acquired new auditory papillae and tympanic hearing. Tympanic hearing arose in parallel within each of the major tetrapod lineages and would have led to increased sensitivity to a broader frequency range and to modification of the preexisting circuitry for sound source localization.

JournalBrain, Behavior and Evolution
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)131-153
Number of pages23
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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  • Journal Article