Making an Effort to Listen: Mechanical Amplification in the Ear
The inner ear’s performance is greatly enhanced by an active process defined by four features: amplification, frequency selectivity, compressive nonlinearity, and spontaneous otoacoustic emission. These characteristics emerge naturally if the mechanoelectrical transduction process operates near a dynamical instability, the Hopf bifurcation, whose mathematical properties account for specific aspects of our hearing. The active process of nonmammalian tetrapods depends upon active hair-bundle motility, which emerges from the interaction of negative hair-bundle stiffness and myosin-based adaptation motors. Taken together, these phenomena explain the four characteristics of the ear’s active process. In the high-frequency region of the mammalian cochlea, the active process is dominated instead by the phenomenon of electromotility, in which the cell bodies of outer hair cells extend and contract as the protein prestin alters its membrane surface area in response to changes in membrane potential.