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Re: mechanical cochlear model
In my opinion it would be better to start a beginners' course
on cochlear mechanics with a treatment of surface waves
on the ocean. Their propagation velocity is much smaller
than the sound velocity in water. The water particles move on
closed (elliptical) trajectories in vertical planes. The liquid motion
is limited to a surface layer of thickness ~1/k, where k =
2pi/wavelength is the wave number. The wavelength of tsunamis
on a 3 km deep ocean is about 100 km, so in their case there
is liquid motion down to the ocean floor.
In the case of the passive cochlear wave, the surface wave is
mass-loaded (mass = BM and cells attached to it), and the wave
is not gravity-driven, but spring-driven (springs = fibres of the BM),
so that a surface wave with liquid on both sides of the "surface"
(i.e., of the cochlear partition) is possible.
Etc. -- see the already mentioned Chapters 4 and 5 of the book
"The Cochlea", or also Chapter 2, "Cochlear Structure and Function",
by the late Graeme Yates, of the book "Hearing", B.C.J. Moore (Ed., 1995),
Academic Press, San Diego.
Dr. phil. nat.,
r. PSI and ETH Zurich,
Phone: 0041 56 441 77 72.
Mobile: 0041 79 754 30 32.
E-mail: reinifrosch@xxxxxxxxxx .
Datum: 06.03.2010 02:54
Betreff: Re: mechanical cochlear model
Strangely I didn't see Jan's message on the list. I agree with his
comments. The controversy seems partly due to people using the term
"travelling wave" with different meanings. The way I explain things
to students is the following. If this account is fundamentally
flawed (as opposed to inaccurate) I'd be glad to know. It goes like
This is a simple explanation of cochlear selectivity.
We know that the cochlea is divided into two ducts separated by the
basilar membrane, surrounded by hard bone, and filled with fluid.
Both ducts are closed at their base by flexible windows, the oval
window for the upper duct (scala vestibuli), and the round window for
the lower duct (scala tympani). The ducts communicate at their apex
via a hole, the helicotrema.
Our explanation assumes four ingredients. First, the fluid within
the cochlea is incompressible. Second, the bony walls that surround
it are rigid. Third, the fluid has mass. Fourth, the basilar
membrane is stiff at the base (where it is narrow) and compliant at
the apex (where it is wide).
If the pressure in the outside air is slowly increased (relative to
middle ear) the displacement of the ear drum, transmitted via the
ossicles to the oval window, causes that window to flex inwards.
Fluid flows up scala vestibuli, through the helicotrema, and down
scala tympani, causing the round window to flex outwards.
Acceleration being small, the effect of fluid inertia is negligible,
and the pressure at all points in the ducts on both sides of the
membrane is equal. The membrane does not move.
For faster vibrations, force is required to accelerate the column of
fluid in the ducts, implying a pressure gradient along the duct and a
pressure difference across the membrane. Deformation of the membrane
may then be an easier option than displacement of the fluid. Whether
deformation or displacement occurs depends on the balance between the
inertia of the fluid to move on one hand, and the stiffness of the
membrane to bend on the other. The terms of this balance depends on
frequency of vibration and place along the cochlea.
At the base of the cochlea stiffness is maximal, and so deformation
requires a large trans-membrane pressure. This occurs only with the
relatively large accelerations involved in vibration at high
frequencies. Hence the base of the cochlea responds only to high
frequencies. For lower frequencies the inertia/compliance balance
occurs where the membrane is less stiff, ie apically. Thus the apex
responds to lower frequencies.
This explanation is a rough first-order explanation. A more complete
explanation would involve detailed modeling of the mechanics of the
basilar and tectorial membranes, of the fluid mechanics of the fluid
in both ducts, and of the electrical and chemical phenomena that
interact with cochlear mechanics at the outer hair cells. In
particular, we know that the moving parts of the inner ear are
immersed in fluid and therefore resonances should be very much damped
(the "underwater piano" metaphor). To compensate for damping and
produce the exquisitely fine tuning and high sensitivity of the
cochlea requires a form of "negative damping" by which energy is
injected into the system to compensate for dissipation. This is
ensured by active processes involving the outer hair cells, that
interact with cochlear mechanics under control from the central
Is this account reasonably correct? For example if the balance of
membrane compliance and fluid inertia did not play a role I'd
consider it to be flawed.