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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Apr 2;110(14):5474-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1302911110. Epub 2013 Mar 18.

Effects of cochlear loading on the motility of active outer hair cells.

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Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Laboratory of Sensory Neuroscience, The Rockefeller University, New York, NY 10065, USA.


Outer hair cells (OHCs) power the amplification of sound-induced vibrations in the mammalian inner ear through an active process that involves hair-bundle motility and somatic motility. It is unclear, though, how either mechanism can be effective at high frequencies, especially when OHCs are mechanically loaded by other structures in the cochlea. We address this issue by developing a model of an active OHC on the basis of observations from isolated cells, then we use the model to predict the response of an active OHC in the intact cochlea. We find that active hair-bundle motility amplifies the receptor potential that drives somatic motility. Inertial loading of a hair bundle by the tectorial membrane reduces the bundle's reactive load, allowing the OHC's active motility to influence the motion of the cochlear partition. The system exhibits enhanced sensitivity and tuning only when it operates near a dynamical instability, a Hopf bifurcation. This analysis clarifies the roles of cochlear structures and shows how the two mechanisms of motility function synergistically to create the cochlear amplifier. The results suggest that somatic motility evolved to enhance a preexisting amplifier based on active hair-bundle motility, thus allowing mammals to hear high-frequency sounds.

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