1. The antimasking effects of olivocochlear (OC) efferent feedback were studied in anesthetized or decerebrate cats by comparing responses of single auditory-nerve fibers (ANFs) to tone bursts in continuous masking noise seen with and without addition of a moderate-level contralateral noise known to activate the OC reflex. Responses were measured as a function of tone-burst intensity, tone-burst frequency, and masker intensity and were analyzed so as to allow quantitative estimates of the detectability of the tone bursts against the noise background. 2. Addition of the contralateral OC elicitor both increased the maximum discharge rates to the masked tone bursts and decreased the rates to the ipsilateral masker. The rate increases to the tone bursts could be explained on the basis of a decrease in adaptation caused by decreasing the steady response to the masker. The result is a steepening of the rate-versus-level function for masked tone bursts and a concomitant increase in the estimated discriminability of small increments of tone-burst intensity. 3. For tone bursts at the fiber's characteristic frequency (CF), the OC effects on detection threshold for the masked tone bursts depended on masker level, with small increases in threshold for low masker levels and somewhat larger decreases in threshold for higher masker levels. For tone bursts below CF, OC effects, when present, always decreased the detection threshold. 4. The largest antimasking effects were seen for fibers with CFs between 6 and 12 kHz and for masker levels within 20 dB of the fiber's threshold to the masker. These trends appeared to hold for fibers of all spontaneous rates (SRs). 5. Enhancement of the response to unmasked tone bursts and concomitant decrease in the 'spontaneous rate' was elicited by OC activation in fibers if threshold sensitivity approached -10 dB SPL. This 'enhancement-in-quiet' appears to arise when an animal-generated noise produces a continuous response (in the absence of purposely applied sound) that is suppressed by OC activity. This finding raises questions as to the range of 'true' spontaneous rates in the cat. 6. The results highlight two important distinctions between the effects of OC feedback in quiet versus those in noise. In quiet, the effects are predominately suppressive and are restricted to stimuli at frequencies near a fiber's CF and at intensities within its dynamic range. In continuous background noise, the OC reflex can enhance the responses to transient stimuli. Such effects are seen throughout the fiber's response area. Because true quiet is only conceivable under artificial laboratory conditions, the predominant effect of the OC reflex in a natural sound environment is to enhance the response to transient stimuli as it suppresses the responses to steady backgrounds.
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