Micram midbrain computational and robotic auditory model for focussed hearing
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MiCRAM (Midbrain Computational and Robotic Auditory Model for focussed hearing). Harry R. Erwin, PhD University of Sunderland School of Computing and Technology. Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. Who? Harry Erwin, Stefan Wermter, and Adrian Rees.

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MiCRAM (Midbrain Computational and Robotic Auditory Model for focussed hearing)

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MiCRAM(Midbrain Computational and Robotic Auditory Model for focussed hearing)

Harry R. Erwin, PhD

University of Sunderland

School of Computing and Technology

Who, What, When, Where, Why and How

  • Who? Harry Erwin, Stefan Wermter, and Adrian Rees.

  • What? An EPSRC grant to develop a computational model of the inferior colliculus and use it with a robot.

  • When? July 2006-June 2009.

  • Where? Universities of Sunderland and Newcastle.

  • Why? Because it’s time.

  • How? As a collaborative interdisciplinary project.


  • This research involves the collaborative development of a biologically plausible model of auditory processing at the level of the inferior colliculus (IC).

  • This approach potentially clarifies the roles of the multiple spectral and temporal representations that are present at the level of the IC and investigate how representations of sounds interact with auditory processing at that level to focus attention and select sound sources for deeper analysis.


  • Hubel and Wiesel worked out how the retina operated. They were successful because the retina was accessible. The IC isn’t (very).

  • Barry Richmond could then begin the mapping of cortical regions of visual processing.

  • The data now exist to do the same for the auditory system using computational modelling techniques.

  • This is expected to show that the IC presents multiple spectral representations to the cortex for processing.

Where do the robots fit in?

  • The IC model will provide spectral representations of the auditory scene.

  • The robot will use those to drive behaviour.

  • The robot is situated—it experiences the same environmental constraints as an animal would.

  • The cues the robot uses allow us to assess their role in the animal’s behaviour.

The Role of the IC

  • The IC plays a strategic role in the processing of auditory information.

  • It is the main midbrain nucleus in the auditory pathway—the centre of convergence for parallel pathways that diverge from the cochlear nucleus.

  • Studies have shown that information necessary for fundamental aspects of auditory processing are extracted before the thalamo-cortical level.

  • We predict that the emergent properties in the outputs of the IC are sufficient to control sound-guided behaviour.

Practical Applications

  • Speech recognition technology makes use of a single smoothed sound spectrum for input. The IC appears to use multiple, parallel spectra. Why?

  • The IC seems to participate in an attentional match/mismatch process that may be useful in speech and sound processing.

  • The length of many sounds is long enough that cortical processing can take place to adapt the response of the IC and change the spectral representation being attended to. This adaptive approach may be useful for hearing aids.


  • We will use an interdisciplinary collaboration between experimental neuroscientists and computational modellers to study this.

  • The experimental neuroscientists will be the domain experts—in particular, assessing experimental data to determine their reliability and how they should be used.

  • The computational neuro-modellers will develop the model of the neural system, and perform computational experiments to model the results found by the biologists.

Data Mining

  • We will maximise the use of existing data from our own and other laboratories. Much of the existing body of data exists in isolation and has not been formally synthesised.

  • The goal of building a model with specific outcomes and measurable performance will provide a formal framework to underpin the data synthesis we propose.

  • Our approach of mining existing data will also reduce the number of animals used in experiments.


  • We will use object-oriented databases to store and process our models, but we will document them on the web in the form of a wiki.

  • (See http://scat-he-g4.sunderland.ac.uk/~harryerw/phpwiki/index.php/AuditoryResearch)

  • The modelling will use PGENESIS running on the Beowulf cluster.

  • The robotics work will use Khepera or Koala robots.

Background to the Work

  • Auditory system description

  • Rules of organization

  • Connectivity

  • Role of the IC

The auditory system is a typical mammalian sensory system

  • The auditory signal is processed by brainstem modules before the information arrives at the cortex.

  • Extensive cortical and somatic reafference is used to tune the brainstem processing.

  • Supports a series of functions:

    • Reflexive movements (e.g., startle reflex)

    • Orientation towards stimuli (attention)

    • Localization (where is it?)

    • Classification (what is it?)

    • Multisensory integration (especially with vision and touch)

Components of the auditory system

  • Neurotransmitters and receptors

  • Cell Types

  • Neural Circuits

  • Overall organization


  • Glutamate (Glu)

    • AMPA receptors—excitatory, fast

    • NMDA receptors—excitatory, learning, much slower

  • Aspartate—excitatory, fast, found in the cochlea.

  • GABA—standard inhibitory*, very slow.

  • Glycine—inhibitory*, fast, common in audition, mandatory coagonist at NMDA receptors (?)

  • Acetylcholine—excitatory

  • Various neuromodulators

    *Remember the Cl- reversal potential!

Some basic cell types of the auditory brainstem

  • Primary-like (PL)

  • Primary-like, notch (PL-N)

  • Phase-lock (onset)

  • Onset, lock (O-L)

  • Chopper

Auditory Midbrain Rules of Organization

  • Many specialized nuclei, organized into parallel paths.

  • ‘Convergence’ at the inferior colliculus (IC), much of it inhibitory or shunting. Left-to-right reversal at the IC (like vision). Does the IC function like the basal ganglia? We may know in 3 yrs.

  • Glycine (Gly) is the most common inhibitory neurotransmitter, probably due to a faster time constant (~1 msec) than GABA (~5 msec). Inhibitory rebound is extensively exploited to produce delayed responses—a cell depolarizing enough to spike after being hyperpolarized.

  • Glutamate (Glu) is the usual excitatory neurotransmitter. AMPA receptors are fast subtypes, so a time constant of 200 sec (200x10-6 sec!) is typical. (Brand et al., 2002, in Nature indicate 100 sec for both Gly and Glu, which is probably too low.)

The Principle Connections of the Mammalian Auditory System





Corrected from

http://earlab.bu.edu/ intro/auditorypathways.html

Central Nucleus of the Inferior Colliculus (Mesencephalon)

  • Largest auditory structure of the brainstem on the roof of the midbrain. A tectal structure behind the superior colliculus (SC). There is a spatial mapping from the IC to the SC (that triggers visual orientation to sounds in barn owl and possibly in mammals).

  • Primary point of convergence in the auditory brainstem.

  • Bidirectional connectivity with the auditory cortex. Excitatory inputs are received from the part of the AC (layer V) that then receives the outputs. This is fast enough to support cortically-controlled analysis of current sound afference.

IC components

  • Small multipolar fusiform cells with tufted dendrites. Cochleotopic = tonotopic laminar organization, uniting inputs from all lower nuclei and the contralateral IC.

  • The anterior portion of the laminae receive cortical inputs, while the posterior portion receives brainstem and IC inputs.

  • Stellate cells also present that cross the laminae.

  • Recently it has been found that the signal at the IC is normalized in intensity. Several possible mechanisms.

  • Partly ‘cerebellar-like’ (Curtis Bell).

  • Match/mismatch processing? Sparsification? Motion processing?

Where do things happen?

  • Azimuth—binaural, measured in the SOC (MSO, LSO, and MNTB).

  • Elevation—monaural, probably based on DCN notch detection.

  • Range, timing, and intervals—monaural, measured by the LL, using inhibitory mechanisms.

  • Line spectrum—monaural, measured by the LL.

  • Sensory integration—for individual sounds, binaurally in the IC, using evidence developed by lower nuclei.

  • Comparisons between sounds—auditory cortex.

Reconstructing the acoustic scene

  • How separate sound sources are distinguished, assigned to sound streams, and localized is not understood.

  • Attention probably chooses sounds out of background. Otherwise, the first sound has preference. Ray Meddis thinks sounds are disambiguated by ignoring ambiguous cues.

  • Intervals between sounds are very important in disambiguating them. Auditory neuroscientists are dubious about the ‘binding problem.’

  • Distinct sound characteristics are also important in assignment to sound streams. Harmonics important as are spectral segments of about 1 kHz.

Some lessons to draw

  • Dense representations are found throughout the auditory brainstem. The sparse representations needed for associative learning and retrieval seem to be cortical.

  • The auditory brainstem has solved the problem of handling (and modulating) duration tuning. This is currently a hard problem in cortical modeling, probably because the role of inhibition and inhibitory rebound is not well-understood. Recent results on persistent activity are important.

  • There is no evidence for a spatial map anywhere in the auditory brainstem. This probably means space is represented in spectral form. (Think spatial Fourier transform and Gabor functions.)

  • Timing, not synchronization, probably solves the binding problem in the auditory system.

Job Description

  • 3-year position at St. Peters, B-scale.

  • Develop and validate

    • biomimetic robots,

    • computational neural networks,

    • PGENESIS models, and

    • a neuroscience database for the MICRAM Project.

  • There will be an experimental neuroscience position at Newcastle that you have to work with. Hence travel between the campuses is required.

Job Requirements

  • Essential:

    • Higher degree or extensive experience in computing

    • PhD or equivalent research experience

  • Desirable:

    • A knowledge of biomimetic robotics

    • Experience with GENESIS or similar neural modelling

    • Knowledge of the auditory system in mammals

    • Knowledge of bioacoustics

Work Now Underway

  • A computational model of high-frequency CNIC disk cells

  • The initial question is whether the CNIC might function to ‘visualise’ the sound in multiple ways, with the cortex selecting the image most useful to the context.

  • We’re beginning by investigating how thoroughly CNIC afferents are mixed.


  • Come and see!

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