Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

New Hearing Mechanism Discovered

Date:
October 12, 2007
Source:
Massachusetts Institute Of Technology
Summary:
Researchers have discovered a hearing mechanism that fundamentally changes the current understanding of inner ear function. This new mechanism could help explain the ear's remarkable ability to sense and discriminate sounds. Its discovery could eventually lead to improved systems for restoring hearing. The tectorial membrane, a gelatinous structure inside the cochlea of the ear, is much more important to hearing than previously thought. It can selectively pick up and transmit energy to different parts of the cochlea via a kind of wave that is different from that commonly associated with hearing.

MIT Professor Dennis Freeman, left, graduate student Roozbeh Ghaffari and research scientist Alexander J. Aranyosi have found that the tectorial membrane, a gelatinous structure inside the cochlea of the ear, is much more important to hearing than previously thought.
Credit: Photo / Donna Coveney

MIT researchers have discovered a hearing mechanism that fundamentally changes the current understanding of inner ear function. This new mechanism could help explain the ear's remarkable ability to sense and discriminate sounds. Its discovery could eventually lead to improved systems for restoring hearing.

Related Articles


MIT Professor Dennis M. Freeman, working with graduate student Roozbeh Ghaffari and research scientist Alexander J. Aranyosi, found that the tectorial membrane, a gelatinous structure inside the cochlea of the ear, is much more important to hearing than previously thought. It can selectively pick up and transmit energy to different parts of the cochlea via a kind of wave that is different from that commonly associated with hearing.

Ghaffari, the lead author of the paper, is in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, as is Freeman. All three researchers are in MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics. Freeman is also in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

It has been known for over half a century that inside the cochlea sound waves are translated into up-and-down waves that travel along a structure called the basilar membrane. But the team has now found that a different kind of wave, a traveling wave that moves from side to side, can also carry sound energy. This wave moves along the tectorial membrane, which is situated directly above the sensory hair cells that transmit sounds to the brain. This second wave mechanism is poised to play a crucial role in delivering sound signals to these hair cells.

In short, the ear can mechanically translate sounds into two different kinds of wave motion at once. These waves can interact to excite the hair cells and enhance their sensitivity, "which may help explain how we hear sounds as quiet as whispers," says Aranyosi. The interactions between these two wave mechanisms may be a key part of how we are able to hear with such fidelity - for example, knowing when a single instrument in an orchestra is out of tune.

"We know the ear is enormously sensitive" in its ability to discriminate between different kinds of sound, Freeman says. "We don't know the mechanism that lets it do that." The new work has revealed "a whole new mechanism that nobody had thought of. It's really a very different way of looking at things."

The tectorial membrane is difficult to study because it is small (the entire length could fit inside a one-inch piece of human hair), fragile (it is 97 percent water, with a consistency similar to that of a jellyfish), and nearly transparent. In addition, sound vibrations cause nanometer-scale displacements of cochlear structures at audio frequencies. "We had to develop an entirely new class of measurement tools for the nano-scale regime," Ghaffari says.

The team learned about the new wave mechanism by suspending an isolated piece of tectorial membrane between two supports, one fixed and one moveable. They launched waves at audio frequencies along the membrane and watched how it responded by using a stroboscopic imaging system developed in Freeman's lab. That system can measure nanometer-scale displacements at frequencies up to a million cycles per second.

The team's discovery has implications for how we model cochlear mechanisms. "In the long run, this could affect the design of hearing aids and cochlear implants," says Ghaffari. The research also has implications for inherited forms of hearing loss that affect the tectorial membrane. Previous measurements of cochlear function in mouse models of these diseases "are consistent with disruptions of this second wave," Aranyosi adds.

Because the tectorial membrane is so tiny and so fragile, people "tend to think of it as something that's wimpy and not important," Freeman says. "Well, it's not wimpy at all." The new discovery "that it can transport energy throughout the cochlea is very significant, and it's not something that's intuitive."

The research is described in the advance online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of October 8.

This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Massachusetts Institute Of Technology. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Massachusetts Institute Of Technology. "New Hearing Mechanism Discovered." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 October 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071011140215.htm>.
Massachusetts Institute Of Technology. (2007, October 12). New Hearing Mechanism Discovered. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 18, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071011140215.htm
Massachusetts Institute Of Technology. "New Hearing Mechanism Discovered." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071011140215.htm (accessed December 18, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Health & Medicine News

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Kids Die While Under Protective Services

Kids Die While Under Protective Services

AP (Dec. 18, 2014) As part of a six-month investigation of child maltreatment deaths, the AP found that hundreds of deaths from horrific abuse and neglect could have been prevented. AP's Haven Daley reports. (Dec. 18) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
UN: Up to One Million Facing Hunger in Ebola-Hit Countries

UN: Up to One Million Facing Hunger in Ebola-Hit Countries

AFP (Dec. 17, 2014) Border closures, quarantines and crop losses in West African nations battling the Ebola virus could lead to as many as one million people going hungry, UN food agencies said on Wednesday. Duration: 00:52 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
When You Lose Weight, This Is Where The Fat Goes

When You Lose Weight, This Is Where The Fat Goes

Newsy (Dec. 17, 2014) Can fat disappear into thin air? New research finds that during weight loss, over 80 percent of a person's fat molecules escape through the lungs. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Why Your Boss Should Let You Sleep In

Why Your Boss Should Let You Sleep In

Newsy (Dec. 17, 2014) According to research out of the University of Pennsylvania, waking up for work is the biggest factor that causes Americans to lose sleep. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins