Basilar membrane measurements and the travelling wave

Hear Res. 1986;22:147-53. doi: 10.1016/0378-5955(86)90090-0.


From the original measurements of G. von Békésy (1942) until a few years ago, the basilar membrane was considered to undergo simple passive linear vibration. Recent measurements have completely altered this notion. It is now known that the BM is highly non linear and very sharply tuned. Indeed, BM can now account for most of the properties of the eighth nerve response to sound. The non linearity can be approximated by a hyperbolic function and appears to be part of an active process in the outer hair cell. At the characteristic frequency, CAP threshold (10 dB SPL) corresponds to 0.3 nm motion and the non linearity shows half saturation at 10 nm. The sigmoid shape of the full range BM input-output curve is due to the combination of a less sensitive linear passive component with the added sensitivity of the active non linear function. A hyperbolic input-output function is also present in the cochlear microphonics, and at low frequencies the half saturation value again corresponds to 10 nm BM displacement. With induced threshold loss (e.g. noise trauma) the nonlinearity disappears from the BM, but is still present in the CM. This suggests that the pathology is in the active mechanical feedback process, rather than in the receptor system. It appears that BM mechanics at low amplitudes near the resonant frequency is controlled by a nonlinear mechano-electrical transducer followed by a vulnerable, linear, active mechanism (electro-mechanical?) feeding back in positive phase onto BM vibration.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anura
  • Basilar Membrane / physiology*
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Cats
  • Ear, Inner / physiology*
  • Feedback
  • Hair Cells, Auditory / physiology
  • Hearing / physiology*
  • Lizards
  • Microvilli / physiology
  • Pitch Perception / physiology