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Neural Plasticity
Volume 6 (1999), Issue 4, Pages 147-172

Temporal Coding of Periodicity Pitch in the Auditory System: An Overview

1Eaton Peabody Laboratory, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Department of Otology and Laryngology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
2243 Charles St., Boston 02114, MA, USA

Copyright © 1999 Hindawi Publishing Corporation. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


This paper outlines a taxonomy of neural pulse codes and reviews neurophysiological evidence for interspike interval-based representations for pitch and timbre in the auditory nerve and cochlear nucleus. Neural pulse codes can be divided into channel-based codes, temporal-pattern codes, and time-of-arrival codes. Timings of discharges in auditory nerve fibers reflect the time structure of acoustic waveforms, such that the interspike intervals that are produced precisely convey information concerning stimulus periodicities. Population-wide inter-spike interval distributions are constructed by summing together intervals from the observed responses of many single Type I auditory nerve fibers. Features in such distributions correspond closely with pitches that are heard by human listeners. The most common all-order interval present in the auditory nerve array almost invariably corresponds to the pitch frequency, whereas the relative fraction of pitchrelated intervals amongst all others qualitatively corresponds to the strength of the pitch. Consequently, many diverse aspects of pitch perception are explained in terms of such temporal representations. Similar stimulus-driven temporal discharge patterns are observed in major neuronal populations of the cochlear nucleus. Population-interval distributions constitute an alternative time-domain strategy for representing sensory information that complements spatially organized sensory maps. Similar autocorrelation-like representations are possible in other sensory systems, in which neural discharges are time-locked to stimulus waveforms.