Our auditory system is capable of perceiving the azimuthal location of a low frequency sound source with a precision of a few degrees. This requires the auditory system to detect time differences in sound arrival between the two ears down to tens of microseconds. The detection of these interaural time differences relies on network computation by auditory brainstem neurons sharpening the temporal precision of the afferent signals. Nevertheless, the system requires the hair cell synapse to encode sound with the highest possible temporal acuity. In mammals, each auditory nerve fibre receives input from only one inner hair cell (IHC) synapse. Hence, this single synapse determines the temporal precision of the fibre. As if this was not enough of a challenge, the auditory system is also capable of maintaining such high temporal fidelity with acoustic signals that vary greatly in their intensity. Recent research has started to uncover the cellular basis of sound coding. Functional and structural descriptions of synaptic vesicle pools and estimates for the number of Ca(2+) channels at the ribbon synapse have been obtained, as have insights into how the receptor potential couples to the release of synaptic vesicles. Here, we review current concepts about the mechanisms that control the timing of transmitter release in inner hair cells of the cochlea.
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