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Transduction of Sound

Transduction of Sound

Vibrating objects, such as vocal cords, create sound waves or pressure waves in the air. When these pressure waves reach the ear, the ear transduces this mechanical stimulus (pressure wave) into a nerve impulse (electrical signal) that the brain perceives as sound. The pressure waves strike the tympanum, causing it to vibrate. The mechanical energy from the moving tympanum transmits the vibrations to the three bones of the middle ear. The stapes transmits the vibrations to a thin diaphragm called the oval window, which is the outermost structure of the inner ear.

The structures of the inner ear are found in the labyrinth, a bony, hollow structure that is the most interior portion of the ear. Here, the energy from the sound wave is transferred from the stapes through the flexible oval window and to the fluid of the cochlea. The vibrations of the oval window create pressure waves in the fluid (perilymph) inside the cochlea. The cochlea is a whorled structure, like the shell of a snail, and it contains receptors for transduction of the mechanical wave into an electrical signal (as illustrated in the figure below). Inside the cochlea, the basilar membrane is a mechanical analyzer that runs the length of the cochlea, curling toward the cochlea’s center.

The mechanical properties of the basilar membrane change along its length, such that it is thicker, tauter, and narrower at the outside of the whorl (where the cochlea is largest), and thinner, floppier, and broader toward the apex, or center, of the whorl (where the cochlea is smallest). Different regions of the basilar membrane vibrate according to the frequency of the sound wave conducted through the fluid in the cochlea. For these reasons, the fluid-filled cochlea detects different wave frequencies (pitches) at different regions of the membrane. When the sound waves in the cochlear fluid contact the basilar membrane, it flexes back and forth in a wave-like fashion. Above the basilar membrane is the tectorial membrane.

Art Connection

 A series of three illustrations are shown. The top illustration shows a cochlea, which is shaped like a snail shell with two parallel chambers, the upper chamber and the lower chamber, coiling from the outside in. These chambers are separated by a flexible membrane basilar membrane. The oval window covers the inner of these parallel chambers. Sound waves enter here, and travel to the middle, or apex, of the coil. The membrane separating the two chambers gets thinner from the outside in, such that is vibrates at different sound frequencies, about 20,000 hertz on the outside and about 200 hertz on the inside. Sound then travels back out through the lower chamber, and exits through the round window. The middle illustration shows a closer view of a cross-sectional image of the cochlea. A roughly circular shape has a roughly circular bone exterior, with the middle portion of the circle divided into four major areas. Two of these are spaces labeled “upper canal” and “lower canal.” In the middle is the organ of Corti, and extending from the middle out through the outer bone area is the cochlear nerve, which extends from the middle as a thin tube and then bulges into a larger oval shape as it extends through the bone. The bottom illustration is an enlarged image of the organ of Corti. In the view shown, the top section is a flattish pink area called the tectorial membrane. Extending beneath that membrane are three areas with hair-like connectors (stereocilia) that run from the membrane to the outer hair cells. The outer hair cells are shaped like rectangles with rounded corners. From the end of each protrudes a narrow tube: the cochlear nerve. These narrow tubes join to an inner hair cell, which looks similar to the outer hair cells but with its rectangular shape remaining a consistent width instead of narrowing into a nerve. At the bottom of the image, opposite the top tectorial membrane, is a basilar membrane.

In the human ear, sound waves cause the stapes to press against the oval window. Vibrations travel up the fluid-filled interior of the cochlea. The basilar membrane that lines the cochlea gets continuously thinner toward the apex of the cochlea. Different thicknesses of membrane vibrate in response to different frequencies of sound. Sound waves then exit through the round window. In the cross section of the cochlea (top right figure), note that in addition to the upper canal and lower canal, the cochlea also has a middle canal. The organ of Corti (bottom image) is the site of sound transduction. Movement of stereocilia on hair cells results in an action potential that travels along the auditory nerve.

Cochlear implants can restore hearing in people who have a nonfunctional cochlear. The implant consists of a microphone that picks up sound. A speech processor selects sounds in the range of human speech, and a transmitter converts these sounds to electrical impulses, which are then sent to the auditory nerve. Which of the following types of hearing loss would not be restored by a cochlear implant?

  1. Hearing loss resulting from absence or loss of hair cells in the organ of Corti.
  2. Hearing loss resulting from an abnormal auditory nerve.
  3. Hearing loss resulting from fracture of the cochlea.
  4. Hearing loss resulting from damage to bones of the middle ear.


Hearing loss resulting from an abnormal auditory nerve.

The site of transduction is in the organ of Corti (spiral organ). It is composed of hair cells held in place above the basilar membrane like flowers projecting up from soil, with their exposed short, hair-like stereocilia contacting or embedded in the tectorial membrane above them. The inner hair cells are the primary auditory receptors and exist in a single row, numbering approximately 3,500. The stereocilia from inner hair cells extend into small dimples on the tectorial membrane’s lower surface.

The outer hair cells are arranged in three or four rows. They number approximately 12,000, and they function to fine tune incoming sound waves. The longer stereocilia that project from the outer hair cells actually attach to the tectorial membrane. All of the stereocilia are mechanoreceptors, and when bent by vibrations they respond by opening a gated ion channel (refer to Transduction). As a result, the hair cell membrane is depolarized, and a signal is transmitted to the chochlear nerve. Intensity (volume) of sound is determined by how many hair cells at a particular location are stimulated.

The hair cells are arranged on the basilar membrane in an orderly way. The basilar membrane vibrates in different regions, according to the frequency of the sound waves impinging on it. Likewise, the hair cells that lay above it are most sensitive to a specific frequency of sound waves. Hair cells can respond to a small range of similar frequencies, but they require stimulation of greater intensity to fire at frequencies outside of their optimal range. The difference in response frequency between adjacent inner hair cells is about 0.2 percent. Compare that to adjacent piano strings, which are about six percent different.

Place theory, which is the model for how biologists think pitch detection works in the human ear, states that high frequency sounds selectively vibrate the basilar membrane of the inner ear near the entrance port (the oval window). Lower frequencies travel farther along the membrane before causing appreciable excitation of the membrane. The basic pitch-determining mechanism is based on the location along the membrane where the hair cells are stimulated. The place theory is the first step toward an understanding of pitch perception. Considering the extreme pitch sensitivity of the human ear, it is thought that there must be some auditory “sharpening” mechanism to enhance the pitch resolution.

When sound waves produce fluid waves inside the cochlea, the basilar membrane flexes, bending the stereocilia that attach to the tectorial membrane. Their bending results in action potentials in the hair cells, and auditory information travels along the neural endings of the bipolar neurons of the hair cells (collectively, the auditory nerve) to the brain. When the hairs bend, they release an excitatory neurotransmitter at a synapse with a sensory neuron, which then conducts action potentials to the central nervous system. The cochlear branch of the vestibulocochlear cranial nerve sends information on hearing. The auditory system is very refined, and there is some modulation or “sharpening” built in. The brain can send signals back to the cochlea, resulting in a change of length in the outer hair cells, sharpening or dampening the hair cells’ response to certain frequencies.


Watch an animation of sound entering the outer ear, moving through the ear structure, stimulating cochlear nerve impulses, and eventually sending signals to the temporal lobe.

Higher Processing

The inner hair cells are most important for conveying auditory information to the brain. About 90 percent of the afferent neurons carry information from inner hair cells, with each hair cell synapsing with 10 or so neurons. Outer hair cells connect to only 10 percent of the afferent neurons, and each afferent neuron innervates many hair cells. The afferent, bipolar neurons that convey auditory information travel from the cochlea to the medulla, through the pons and midbrain in the brainstem, finally reaching the primary auditory cortex in the temporal lobe.

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