Hearing at threshold intensities: by slow mechanical traveling waves or by fast cochlear fluid pressure waves
The three modes of auditory stimulation (air, bone and soft tissue conduction) at threshold intensities are thought to share a common excitation mechanism: the stimuli induce passive displacements of the basilar membrane propagating from the base to the apex (slow mechanical traveling wave), which activate the outer hair cells, producing active displacements, which sum with the passive displacements. However, theoretical analyses and modeling of cochlear mechanics provide indications that the slow mechanical basilar membrane traveling wave may not be able to excite the cochlea at threshold intensities with the frequency discrimination observed. These analyses are complemented by several independent lines of research results supporting the notion that cochlear excitation at threshold may not involve a passive traveling wave, and the fast cochlear fluid pressures may directly activate the outer hair cells: opening of the sealed inner ear in patients undergoing cochlear implantation is not accompanied by threshold elevations to low frequency stimulation which would be expected to result from opening the cochlea, reducing cochlear impedance, altering hydrodynamics. The magnitude of the passive displacements at threshold is negligible. Isolated outer hair cells in fluid display tuned mechanical motility to fluid pressures which likely act on stretch sensitive ion channels in the walls of the cells. Vibrations delivered to soft tissue body sites elicit hearing. Thus, based on theoretical and experimental evidence, the common mechanism eliciting hearing during threshold stimulation by air, bone and soft tissue conduction may involve the fast-cochlear fluid pressures which directly activate the outer hair cells.
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