Task reward structure shapes rapid receptive field plasticity in auditory cortex

Stephen V. David, Jonathan B. Fritz, Shihab A. Shamma

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

172 Scopus citations


As sensory stimuli and behavioral demands change, the attentive brain quickly identifies task-relevant stimuli and associates them with appropriate motor responses. The effects of attention on sensory processing vary across task paradigms, suggesting that the brain may use multiple strategies and mechanisms to highlight attended stimuli and link them to motor action. To better understand factors that contribute to these variable effects, we studied sensory representations in primary auditory cortex (A1) during two instrumental tasks that shared the same auditory discrimination but required different behavioral responses, either approach or avoidance. In the approach task, ferrets were rewarded for licking a spout when they heard a target tone amid a sequence of reference noise sounds. In the avoidance task, they were punished unless they inhibited licking to the target. To explore how these changes in task reward structure influenced attention-driven rapid plasticity in A1, we measured changes in sensory neural responses during behavior. Responses to the target changed selectively during both tasks but did so with opposite sign. Despite the differences in sign, both effects were consistent with a general neural coding strategy that maximizes discriminability between sound classes. The dependence of the direction of plasticity on task suggests that representations in A1 change not only to sharpen representations of task-relevant stimuli but also to amplify responses to stimuli that signal aversive outcomes and lead to behavioral inhibition. Thus, top-down control of sensory processing can be shaped by task reward structure in addition to the required sensory discrimination.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2144-2149
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number6
StatePublished - Feb 7 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Grouping
  • Perception
  • Spectrotemporal receptive field

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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