Cell Rep. 2023 Jan 24;42(2):112034. doi: 10.1016/j.celrep.2023.112034. Online ahead of print.
The categorization of animal vocalizations into distinct behaviorally relevant groups for communication is an essential operation that must be performed by the auditory system. This auditory object recognition is a difficult task that requires selectivity to the group identifying acoustic features and invariance to renditions within each group. We find that small ensembles of auditory neurons in the forebrain of a social songbird can code the bird’s entire vocal repertoire (∼10 call types). Ensemble neural discrimination is not, however, correlated with single unit selectivity, but instead with how well the joint single unit tunings to characteristic spectro-temporal modulations span the acoustic subspace optimized for the discrimination of call types. Thus, akin to face recognition in the visual system, call type recognition in the auditory system is based on a sparse code representing a small number of high-level features and not on highly selective grandmother neurons.