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Rep Prog Phys. 2014 Jul;77(7):076601. doi: 10.1088/0034-4885/77/7/076601. Epub 2014 Jul 9.

The physics of hearing: fluid mechanics and the active process of the inner ear.

Abstract

Most sounds of interest consist of complex, time-dependent admixtures of tones of diverse frequencies and variable amplitudes. To detect and process these signals, the ear employs a highly nonlinear, adaptive, real-time spectral analyzer: the cochlea. Sound excites vibration of the eardrum and the three miniscule bones of the middle ear, the last of which acts as a piston to initiate oscillatory pressure changes within the liquid-filled chambers of the cochlea. The basilar membrane, an elastic band spiraling along the cochlea between two of these chambers, responds to these pressures by conducting a largely independent traveling wave for each frequency component of the input. Because the basilar membrane is graded in mass and stiffness along its length, however, each traveling wave grows in magnitude and decreases in wavelength until it peaks at a specific, frequency-dependent position: low frequencies propagate to the cochlear apex, whereas high frequencies culminate at the base. The oscillations of the basilar membrane deflect hair bundles, the mechanically sensitive organelles of the ear's sensory receptors, the hair cells. As mechanically sensitive ion channels open and close, each hair cell responds with an electrical signal that is chemically transmitted to an afferent nerve fiber and thence into the brain. In addition to transducing mechanical inputs, hair cells amplify them by two means. Channel gating endows a hair bundle with negative stiffness, an instability that interacts with the motor protein myosin-1c to produce a mechanical amplifier and oscillator. Acting through the piezoelectric membrane protein prestin, electrical responses also cause outer hair cells to elongate and shorten, thus pumping energy into the basilar membrane's movements. The two forms of motility constitute an active process that amplifies mechanical inputs, sharpens frequency discrimination, and confers a compressive nonlinearity on responsiveness. These features arise because the active process operates near a Hopf bifurcation, the generic properties of which explain several key features of hearing. Moreover, when the gain of the active process rises sufficiently in ultraquiet circumstances, the system traverses the bifurcation and even a normal ear actually emits sound. The remarkable properties of hearing thus stem from the propagation of traveling waves on a nonlinear and excitable medium.

PMID:
25006839
DOI:
10.1088/0034-4885/77/7/076601
[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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