The calyx of Held is the preeminent model for the study of synaptic function in the mammalian CNS. Despite much work on the synapse and associated circuit, its role in hearing remains enigmatic. We propose that the calyx is one of the key adaptations that enables an animal to lateralize transient sounds. The calyx is part of a binaural circuit that is biased toward high sound frequencies and is sensitive to intensity differences between the ears. This circuit also shows marked sensitivity to interaural time differences, but only for brief sound transients (“clicks”). In a natural environment, such transients are rare except as adventitious sounds generated by other animals moving at close range. We argue that the calyx, and associated temporal specializations, evolved to enable spatial localization of sound transients, through a neural code congruent with the circuit's sensitivity to interaural intensity differences, thereby conferring a key benefit to survival. The calyx of Held is a striking and well-studied synaptic specialization in an auditory brainstem circuit, but its functional role is not self-evident. Joris and Trussell provide a new hypothesis on the role of the calyx and its assorted specializations.
- calyx of Held
- interaural intensity difference
- interaural time difference
- sound localization
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