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J Comp Physiol A Neuroethol Sens Neural Behav Physiol. 2008 Jul;194(7):597-609. doi: 10.1007/s00359-008-0344-0. Epub 2008 May 31.

Otoacoustic emissions from insect ears: evidence of active hearing?

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  • 1Institut für Zellbiologie und Neurowissenschaft, J.W. Goethe-Universität, Siesmayerstrasse 70, 60323, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.


Sensitive hearing organs often employ nonlinear mechanical sound processing which generates distortion-product otoacoustic emissions (DPOAE). Such emissions are also recordable from tympanal organs of insects. In vertebrates (including humans), otoacoustic emissions are considered by-products of active sound amplification through specialized sensory receptor cells in the inner ear. Force generated by these cells primarily augments the displacement amplitude of the basilar membrane and thus increases auditory sensitivity. As in vertebrates, the emissions from insect ears are based on nonlinear mechanical properties of the sense organ. Apparently, to achieve maximum sensitivity, convergent evolutionary principles have been realized in the micromechanics of these hearing organs-although vertebrates and insects possess quite different types of receptor cells in their ears. Just as in vertebrates, otoacoustic emissions from insects ears are vulnerable and depend on an intact metabolism, but so far in tympanal organs, it is not clear if auditory nonlinearity is achieved by active motility of the sensory neurons or if passive cellular characteristics cause the nonlinear behavior. In the antennal ears of flies and mosquitoes, however, active vibrations of the flagellum have been demonstrated. Our review concentrates on experiments studying the tympanal organs of grasshoppers and moths; we show that their otoacoustic emissions are produced in a frequency-specific way and can be modified by electrical stimulation of the sensory cells. Even the simple ears of notodontid moths produce distinct emissions, although they have just one auditory neuron. At present it is still uncertain, both in vertebrates and in insects, if the nonlinear amplification so essential for sensitive sound processing is primarily due to motility of the somata of specialized sensory cells or to active movement of their (stereo-)cilia. We anticipate that further experiments with the relatively simple ears of insects will help answer these questions.

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