February 21, 2011

037 How Sound is Transferred to the Inner Ear

In this episode, Leslie talks about how sound is transferred to the inner ear. Because there is fluid inside the cochlea, impedance matching has to take place for the vibration in the fluid to accurately represent the sound that you are hearing.

Watch this video to learn how this process works.

Transcript of Today’s Episode

Hello, and welcome to another episode of Interactive Biology TV where we’re making Biology fun! My name is Leslie Samuel and in this episode, episode 37, I’m going to talk about how sound is transferred to the inner ear.

Let’s see and visit an animation that we looked at in the last episode. We looked at this animation that showed how, when you hear something, there are sound waves that are entering into the ear, and those sound waves come in contact with the eardrum, the tympanic membrane.

The tympanic membrane vibrates back and forth and that vibration is transferred to the three bony ossicles, the malleus, incus, and stapes. It’s connected to the cochlea, and that’s going to cause something to happen in the cochlea that’s going to cause a signal to go via the auditory nerve to the brain. That is how we hear.

Now, what we’re going to talk about is what happens in the process of moving that sound, transferring that sound to the inner ear. Later on, we’re going to look at what happens inside the cochlea.

So, let’s get into some more detail. Here, we’re looking at a structure of the ear. We have the outer ear, so, I’m going to refer to this part, up until the tympanic membrane or the eardrum as the outer ear. Then, we have this section here with the malleus, incus, and stapes, the Eustachian tube. This is called the middle ear (forgive my writing there).

Then we have the with cochlea, the semicircular canals, and the nerves and so on, that’s called the inner ear. We’re going to be talking about the process of sound being transferred from the outer and middle ear to the inner ear.

Now, here’s the deal, in the external auditory canal, that’s in here, we have air. In the Eustachian tube that’s in here, we have air once again. However, inside the cochlea, we don’t have air. We actually have fluid. Now, because of that, it’s going to be harder to get the fluid inside the cochlea to vibrate than it is to get the air inside the middle ear and inside the outer ear to vibrate. Think about it this way. if you’re running in air, which, when you’re running you’re usually running in air, that is not as hard as if you’re trying to run in water.

So, in order for us to have the same strength of signal out here and in the fluid inside the cochlea, something needs to happen and that process is called impedance matching. Impedance is basically resistance and we’re trying to match the amount of resistance here to the amount of resistance here. We want the same signal in the fluid in the cochlea that we have in the air inside the outer ear.

This can sound a little confusing because sometimes, I’m referring to “air,” and sometimes I’m referring to the “ear.” But, what we’re basically saying is, when the signal comes here and causes the tympanic membrane to vibrate, we want the signal to be transferred with the same amount of strength to that fluid inside the cochlea. So, we have to go through this process of impedance matching.

There are two ways that impedance matching is accomplished. Let’s look at the first way. Here we have the three bony ossicles, the malleus, the incus, and the stapes that‘s attached to the oval window here. Now, I’m going to draw the malleus, incus, and stapes over here in a very simple way. So, let’s say this is the malleus, this is the incus and, this is the stapes. Now, it makes sense that if the malleus vibrates back and forth, so let’s say it’s going back and forth, that’s going to cause the incus to vibrate back and forth, and then that’s going to cause the stapes also to vibrate back and forth.

However, because of the way these are connected and the hinges that we have between these three bones, I’m not necessarily going to get the same amount of movement here as I get here. I can orchestrate this in a way that when this moves, these are connected so that these will move even more than this is moving. It will move a greater distance. And this is exactly how the malleus, incus, and stapes are set up so that we have a movement ratio of 1.3 to 1. In other words, and I’m going to take a random number, if this moves 1 micrometer back and forth, this is going to move 1.3 micrometers back and forth.

So, we’re going to get more movement here than we are getting here. And that is going to cause increased pressure on the oval window. So, we’re going to have a certain amount of pressure here, but the amount of pressure we get on that oval window is going to be greater. This is exactly what you want because you want to move the fluid inside the cochlea the same amount, you want the same amount of vibration that we have inside the tympanic membrane so that you can send an accurate signal to the brain via the cochlear nerve, or another name for this is the auditory nerve. So, the first way to compensate for the fact that we have fluid in here is by having a movement ratio of 1.3 to 1 between the stapes and the malleus. That is the first way.

Now, let’s talk about the second way. Here, once again, we have the tympanic membrane or the eardrum, and here, we have the oval window. Now, you will notice something about the size of the two. The tympanic membrane is larger than the oval window. To be more specific, it’s approximately 18.6 times larger. Now, why is this significant? I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a very graphic example. Let’s say we have a surface here and we’re going to see that that surface is your leg. On top of that leg, we’re going to put a block, let’s say we have a brick. What happens if someone comes along and decides they want to punch that brick with a certain amount of force. They punch that brick, it’s on top of your leg, and you might say, “Ow!” because it might hurt. I hope that makes sense.

Now, let’s take a different situation where once again, we have your leg but, instead of having a brick, we have, brace yourselves, a needle! I know what you’re thinking already. This is kind of crazy. Well, it is! Let’s say a person comes by, and they do the same exact thing. They come by and they punch that needle that’s right on the surface of your leg. This is the same amount of force that they punch over here. Are you going to notice the difference in the amount of pressure? I am betting that you will! This is going to hurt much more. Most likely if they’re punching, the needle is going to go into your leg and you are going to scream.

I don’t care how strong you are, you are going to scream. The same amount of force as here however, here you have an increased amount of pressure because you have a smaller area. So, I’m going to write here, “smaller area.” This is not the situation that you want to find yourself in. However, in some cases, it can be a good thing. Here, where we have the tympanic membrane being 18.6 times larger than the oval window, what that is going to do is cause an increased amount of pressure due to this vibration. And, what’s that going to do? Well, we said, we have fluid inside the cochlea, air inside the Eustachian tube and inside the outer ear and we want to match the vibration out here which is easy, with the vibration in here which is harder because of the fluid.

So, once again, the two ways that impedance matching is accomplished so that we can get an accurate amount of vibration inside the cochlea is by having a ratio of 1.3 to 1 between the malleus and the stapes; and by having the tympanic membrane 18.6 times larger than the oval window. That’s going to cause the fluid inside the cochlea to vibrate in a way that matches the vibration that’s happening out here. Then, that causes a signal that goes via the auditory nerve to the brain.

In the next video, I’m going to talk more about what happens inside the cochlea. So, make sure to check that one out. That’s it for this video. If you have any questions, as usual, feel free to ask them in the comments section below and I’ll be happy to respond to your questions. Who knows? I might even make a video to answer your specific question. Also, you can always visit the website at Interactive-Biology.com for more Biology videos and other resources. That’s it for now. I’ll see you on the next one.

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