Learning More About the Ear

Learning More About the Ear

Mackenzie Thompson

by Mackenzie Thompson

Life Saver, AMC

posted on Oct 22, 2013, at 9:51 pm

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Learning More About the Ear May Lead to New and Improved Hearing Aids

At Columbia University, researchers are gaining critical insights about how the ear processes sound by using sensors inside live gerbils’ ears. Much evidence has been revealed about how the cochlea, a coiled portion of the inner ear, processes and amplifies sound. These researchers are on the road that may lead to improved hearing aids and implants.

Do the inner workings of the ear function somewhat passively with sound waves traveling into the cochlea, bouncing along sensory tissue, and slowing as they encounter resistance until they are boosted and processed into sound? Or does the cochlea actively amplify sound waves? Has been debated for quite sometime, and the study suggests that the latter is the answer.

The team used sensors that simultaneously measured small pressure fluctuations and cell-generated voltages within the ear. Researchers could pick up phase shifts,—a change in the alignment of the vibrations—suggesting that some part of the ear was amplifying sound. Researchers think the power behind the phase shift comes from the outer hair cells. Apparently the hair cells’ movement serves to localize and sharpen the frequency region of amplification.

The study was used only on a small amount of gerbils because it is very difficult and may cause complications including bleeding, which would impact the sensors. Using a larger number of gerbils would be difficult.

Although the research won’t take us directly to new hearing aids, it does provide useful information concerning the cochlea. “The most significant aspect of the team’s results is it eliminates certain models and it guides us toward building better models of the cochlea,” says Stephen Neely, an electrical engineer specializing in hearing of the Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha, Neb.That, in turn, has clear implications for future cochlear implants, which bypass the middle ear, delivering electrical signals directly to the cochlea.

If a person has blurry vision and you turn up the lights, they’ll just see a much brighter blurry image. Today’s hearing aids now essentially turn up the lights. Better understanding of both the cochlea and exactly where sound waves should hit the inner ear should eventually improve hearing aids, making it possible to both amplify and sharpen hearing.

To read the full article, go to Scientific American

About Mackenzie

Mackenzie is a lover of world travel, photography, design, style and Chinese cooking. She is passionate about working towards a purpose, recently graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Media and Marketing, and is currently residing in Manhattan.

Contact Mackenzie at mackenzie.thompson@advmedcert.com
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