Acoustic reflex frequency selectivity in single stapedius motoneurons of the cat

J. B. Kobler, J. J. Guinan Jr, S. R. Vacher, B. E. Norris


1. The sound frequency selectivities of single stapedius motoneurons were investigated in ketamine anesthetized and in decerebrate cats by recording from axons in the small nerve fascicles entering the stapedius muscle. 2. Stapedius motoneuron tuning curves (TCs) were very broad, similar to the tuning of the overall acoustic reflexes as determined by electromyographic recordings. The lowest thresholds were usually for sound frequencies between 1 and 2 kHz, although many TCs also had a second sensitive region in the 6- to 12-kHz range. The broad tuning of stapedius motoneurons implies that inputs derived from different cochlear frequency regions (which are narrowly tuned) must converge at a point central to the stapedius motoneuron outputs, possibly at the motoneuron somata. 3. There were only small differences in tuning among the four previously described groups of stapedius motoneurons categorized by sensitivity to ipsilateral and contralateral sound. The gradation in high-frequency versus low-frequency sensitivity across motoneurons suggests there are not distinct subgroups of stapedius motoneurons, based on their TCs. 4. The thresholds and shapes of stapedius motoneuron TCs support the hypothesis that the stapedius acoustic reflex is triggered by summed activity of low-spontaneous-rate auditory nerve fibers with both low and high characteristic frequencies (CFs). Excitation of high-CF auditory nerve fibers by sound in their TC “tails” is probably an important factor in eliciting the reflex. 5. In general, the most sensitive frequency for stapedius motoneurons is higher than the frequency at which stapedius contractions produce the greatest attenuation of middle ear transmission. We argue that this is true because the main function of the stapedius acoustic reflex is to reduce the masking of responses to high-frequency sounds produced by low-frequency sounds.