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J Assoc Res Otolaryngol. 2004 Dec;5(4):349-59.

Do forward- and backward-traveling waves occur within the cochlea? Countering the critique of Nobili et al.

Author information

  • 1Eaton-Peabody Laboratory of Auditory Physiology, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Boston, MA 02114, USA.

Erratum in

  • J Assoc Res Otolaryngol. 2005 Mar;6(1):90.


The question of whether or not forward- and backward-traveling waves occur within the cochlea constitutes a long-standing controversy in cochlear mechanics recently brought to the fore by the problem of understanding otoacoustic emissions. Nobili and colleagues articulate the opposition to the traveling-wave viewpoint by arguing that wave-equation formulations of cochlear mechanics fundamentally misrepresent the hydrodynamics of the cochlea [e.g., Nobili et al. (2003) J. Assoc. Res. Otolaryngol. 4:478-494]. To correct the perceived deficiencies of the wave-equation formulation, Nobili et al. advocate an apparently altogether different approach to cochlear modeling--the so-called "hydrodynamic" or "Green's function" approach--in which cochlear responses are represented not as forward- and backward-traveling waves but as weighted sums of the motions of individual basilar membrane oscillators, each interacting with the others via forces communicated instantaneously through the cochlear fluids. In this article, we examine Nobili and colleagues' arguments and conclusions while attempting to clarify the broader issues at stake. We demonstrate that the one-dimensional wave-equation formulation of cochlear hydrodynamics does not misrepresent long-range fluid coupling in the cochlea, as claimed. Indeed, we show that the long-range component of Nobili et al.'s three-dimensional force propagator is identical to the hydrodynamic Green's function representing a one-dimensional tapered transmission line. Furthermore, simulations that Nobili et al. use to discredit wave-equation formulations of cochlear mechanics (i.e., cochlear responses to excitation at a point along the basilar membrane) are readily reproduced and interpreted using a simple superposition of forward- and backward-traveling waves. Nobili and coworkers' critique of wave-equation formulations of cochlear mechanics thus appears to be without compelling foundation. Although the traveling-wave and hydrodynamic formulations impose strikingly disparate conceptual and computational frameworks, the two approaches ultimately describe the same underlying physics.

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