Amplitude modulation (AM) is a crucial feature of many communication signals, including speech. Whereas average discharge rates in the auditory midbrain correlate with behavioral AM sensitivity in rabbits, the neural bases of AM sensitivity in species with human-like behavioral acuity are unexplored. Here, we used parallel behavioral and neurophysiological experiments to explore the neural (midbrain) bases of AM perception in an avian speech mimic, the budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus). Behavioral AM sensitivity was quantified using operant conditioning procedures. Neural AM sensitivity was studied using chronically implanted microelectrodes in awake, unrestrained birds. Average discharge rates of multiunit recording sites in the budgerigar midbrain were insufficient to explain behavioral sensitivity to modulation frequencies <100 Hz for both tone- and noise-carrier stimuli, even with optimal pooling of information across recording sites. Neural envelope synchrony, in contrast, could explain behavioral performance for both carrier types across the full range of modulation frequencies studied (16–512 Hz). The results suggest that envelope synchrony in the budgerigar midbrain may underlie behavioral sensitivity to AM. Behavioral AM sensitivity based on synchrony in the budgerigar, which contrasts with rate-correlated behavioral performance in rabbits, raises the possibility that envelope synchrony, rather than average discharge rate, might also underlie AM perception in other species with sensitive AM detection abilities, including humans. These results highlight the importance of synchrony coding of envelope structure in the inferior colliculus. Furthermore, they underscore potential benefits of devices (e.g., midbrain implants) that evoke robust neural synchrony.
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