The role of GABA in the central processing of complex auditory signals is not fully understood. We have studied the involvement of GABA A-mediated inhibition in the processing of birdsong, a learned vocal communication signal requiring intact hearing for its development and maintenance. We focused on caudomedial nidopallium (NCM), an area analogous to parts of the mammalian auditory cortex with selective responses to birdsong. We present evidence that GABAA-mediated inhibition plays a pronounced role in NCM's auditory processing of birdsong. Using immunocytochemistry, we show that approximately half of NCM's neurons are GABAergic. Whole cell patch-clamp recordings in a slice preparation demonstrate that, at rest, spontaneously active GABAergic synapses inhibit excitatory inputs onto NCM neurons via GABAA receptors. Multi-electrode electrophysiological recordings in awake birds show that local blockade of GABAA-mediated inhibition in NCM markedly affects the temporal pattern of song-evoked responses in NCM without modifications in frequency tuning. Surprisingly, this blockade increases the phasic and largely suppresses the tonic response component, reflecting dynamic relationships of inhibitory networks that could include disinhibition. Thus processing of learned natural communication sounds in songbirds, and possibly other vocal learners, may depend on complex interactions of inhibitory networks.
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