Direct measurement of intra-cochlear pressure waves

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The cochlear travelling wave is fundamental to the ability of the mammalian auditory system to resolve frequency. The seashell-shaped outer bone of the cochlea (the auditory inner ear) contains a spiral of cochlear fluid and the sensory tissue known as the cochlear partition. Sound travels down the ear canal to the eardrum, causing its flexible tympanic membrane to vibrate. This vibration is transmitted to the cochlea via the ossicles. Motion of the stapes (the stirrup ossicle) sets the cochlear fluid in motion, which in turn sets the cochlear partition near the stapes in motion. The motion of the cochlear partition ripples down the cochlear spiral as a travelling wave, stimulating the cochlea's sensory hair cells. The wave peaks near the base (the stapes end) of the cochlea for high frequency tones and near the apex for low frequencies1. The fundamental elements of the cochlear travelling wave are fluid pressure and motion and partition forces and motion. However, the wave's direct experimental study has to date relied almost solely on measurements of the partition motion. Here I report finely spaced measurements of intracochlear pressure close to the partition, which reveal the fluid component of the cochlear wave. The penetration depth of the wave is very limited, 15 µm. Over a range of frequencies at least an octave wide, the depth is independent of frequency.

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Figure 1: The cochlea.
Figure 2: Scala tympani pressure versus frequency at the turn-one location.
Figure 3: Fluid velocity derived from pressures of Fig. 2.
Figure 4: Fluid velocity (z-component) close to the basilar membrane at turn-one and basal locations, and wavelength of cochlear wave.
Figure 5: Fluid velocity (z-component) as a function of distance from the basilar membrane.


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I thank H. Nakajima, E. de Boer, L. Sohn, N. Cooper, S. Staggs, R. Brawer, R. Austin and L. Page Jr. This work was supported by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth S. Olson.

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Olson, E. Direct measurement of intra-cochlear pressure waves. Nature 402, 526–529 (1999) doi:10.1038/990092

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