Auditory processing and hearing-related pathologies are heavily influenced by steroid hormones in a variety of vertebrate species, including humans. The hormone estradiol has been recently shown to directly modulate the gain of central auditory neurons, in real time, by controlling the strength of inhibitory transmission via a nongenomic mechanism. The functional relevance of this modulation, however, remains unknown. Here we show that estradiol generated in the songbird homolog of the mammalian auditory association cortex, rapidly enhances the effectiveness of the neural coding of complex, learned acoustic signals in awake zebra finches. Specifically, estradiol increases mutual information rates, coding efficiency, and the neural discrimination of songs. These effects are mediated by estradiol's modulation of both the rate and temporal coding of auditory signals. Interference with the local action or production of estradiol in the auditory forebrain of freely behaving animals disrupts behavioral responses to songs, but not to other behaviorally relevant communication signals. Our findings directly show that estradiol is a key regulator of auditory function in the adult vertebrate brain.
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