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Sound Transduction in the Ear

Sound Transduction is the process by which the ear senses ambient sounds and
translates them into nerve impulses in order to relay the information to the brain.

For patients with hearing conditions, doctors, and medical students alike it is
important to know the mechanism behind hearing. This knowledge is necessary in order
to better understand how various problems—such as nerve deafness—arise and how
they may influence the process at large.

The process of sound transduction utilizes several different membranes,


muscles, and bones found within the middle and inner ear in order to translate a sound
to a chemical message that can be received by the nervous system. The image below
depicts the structure of the inner ear.

Figure 1: Basic Anatomy of the Ear. Credit: Uptodate.com

This process description will illustrate the path sound waves take in order to
reach the brain, and how the inner ear is capable of distinguishing between the range of
frequencies a human hears (50- 18,000 Hz). It is important to note that Sound
Transduction is a complex, involved process that demands a sufficient background in
anatomy to completely understand. For this reason this description will only cover the
most significant details necessary to paint a general picture of the procedure.
This description will be broken into two parts:

A brief description of each structure that plays a role in sound transduction.


A step by step walkthrough of the entire process.

The Various Players in Sound Transduction

Figure 2: Detailed Anatomy of the Inner Ear. Credit: HowStuffWorks.com

In order to understand the process of sound transduction that takes place in the ear, it is
important to first learn about all of the various parts in the middle and inner ear that are
integral to the process. The various players in sound transduction that are going to be
discussed are:

The Auditory Canal


The Tympanic Membrane
The Ear Ossicles
The Oval Window
The Cochlea
The Auditory Nerve
The Round Window
Auditory Canal:
The Auditory Canal is the path made of cartilage and
bone between the eardrum and the opening of the
ear. Sound waves must travel down this canal to reach
the inner ear and be translated into a signal for the
brain to receive. Figure 3 displays the Auditory Canal.

Figure 3. The Auditory Canal. Credit: Uptodate.com

Tympanic Membrane:
The Tympanic Membrane—also known as the
eardrum—is the membrane that translates incoming
sound waves from the Auditory Canal into vibrations
that move the ear ossicles in the middle ear. Figure 4
diplays the Tympanic Membrane.

Figure 4. The Tympanic Membrane. Credit Uptodate.com

Ear Ossicles:
The Ear Ossicles (Shown in Figure 5) include the
Malleus, Incus, and Stapes—better known as the
hammer, anvil, and stirrup due to their shapes. These
small auditory bones are displaced by vibrations of the
tympanic membrane. Consequently, the Ossicles
amplify and transfer the vibrations into the inner ear.
Muscles at the Malleus and Stapes pull the two bones
away from the membranes they are attached to in
order to prevent them from rupturing their respective
membranes. Figure 5 shows the three ear ossicles.
Figure 5: The Malleus, Incus, and Stapes.
Credit: Uptodate.com
Oval Window:
The Oval Window vibrates in response to the
movement of the Ear Ossicles, transferring the sound
wave into the Cochlea. The location of the Oval
Window is seen in Figure 6.

Figure 6: The Oval Window. Credit: Uptodate.com

Cochlea:
The Cochlea is the coiled structure (displayed in
Figure 7) within the inner ear that is filled with fluid.
Within the Cochlea is an inner channel referred to as
the Cochlear Duct. The Basilar Membrane separates
these channels, and can vibrate in response to the
sound waves travelling through the Cochlea. Within
the Cochlear Duct are hair cells that bend in response
to the displacement of the Basilar Membrane,
resulting in the release of neurotransmitters.

Figure 7: The Cochlea. Credit: Uptodate.com

Figure 8 depicts the structure of the inner Cochlea, with the Basilar Membrane and
Cochlear Duct labeled. As diagrammed in the figure, sounds entering the cochlea vibrate the
basilar membrane at different locations depending upon the frequency of the sound wave.
Higher frequency sounds vibrate the basilar membrane nearer to the Oval window (the base),
while lower frequency sounds must travel farther into the channel (toward the apex) before
they can displace the membrane.
Figure 8: Inside the Cochlea. Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

Auditory Nerve:
The Auditory Nerve conducts nerve impulses to the
brain in response to stimulation by
neurotransmitters. The auditory nerve, as shown in
Figure 8, is situated behind the cochlea, where it can
easily sense the presence of neurotransmitters
released due to the hair cells.

Figure 9: The Auditory Nerve. Credit: Uptodate.com

Round Window:
The Round Window is a membrane connected the
Cochlea just below the Oval Window. This
membrane’s purpose is to dissipate the sound
wave travelling through the Cochlea once the
sound wave has stimulated the Auditory Nerve.

Figure 10: The Round Window. Credit: Uptodate.com

Now that the significant aspects of ear anatomy involved in the process of sound
transduction have been defined, the process will now be outlined.
How the Players Work Together

Sound transduction uses all of the bones,


membranes, and other structures previously
discussed in order to relay the sensory
information regarding sound to the brain.
The process has been simplified and broken
down into the five steps displayed below,
and in Figure 11.

Figure 11: The Steps Involved in Sound Transduction.


Credit: UptoDate.com

1. Sound waves travelling down the Auditory Canal are translated into a vibration on
the Tympanic Membrane, resulting in the displacement of the Malleus.

2. As the other Ear Ossicles move in response to the vibration, the sound wave is
amplified until it is finally transferred to the Oval Window by the Stapes.

3. The vibrating Oval Window transfers the amplified wave into the Cochlea where it
vibrates the Basilar Membrane based upon the frequency of the sound sensed. The
hair cells within the Cochlear Duct are bent due to the vibration of the Basilar
Membrane resulting in the release of neurotransmitters.
4. Once the wave has travelled through the Cochlea, it reaches the Round Window
where it is dissipated.

5. The released neurotransmitters stimulate the Auditory Nerve, which conducts


sensory information to the brain. Because differing frequencies stimulate different
portions of the Basilar Membrane, different hair cells are bent which also affects the
neurotransmitters released to stimulate the nerve. It is because the Cochlea
separates these sounds based upon frequency that human beings are capable of
hearing speech and distinguishing tones.

Conclusion
Sound Transduction is a complex, involved process that the ear utilizes to
translate sound waves into a chemical, and then electrical message to be sent to the
brain. The various structures involved in the process have been outlined along with the
path the sound wave takes through the ear. While this description is a simplified
illustration of the process, it should be clear that sound transduction is dependent upon
various different structures within the ear, and if any vital part is tampered with—if the
eardrum is punctured or if nerves are damaged for example—significant problems in
hearing can result.

References

"Ear Anatomy Image." 16 May 2007. HowStuffWorks.com.

<http://healthguide.howstuffworks.com/ear-anatomy-picture-a.htm> 05 April 2010.

“Normal Ear Anatomy.” Uptodate.com

<http://www.uptodate.com/patients/content/image.do?imageKey=PEDS%2F19029>

Silverthorn, Dee Unglaub, and Bruce R. Johnson. Human Physiology: an Integrated Approach.

San Francisco: Pearson/Benjamin Cummings, 2010. Print.