The basilar membrane in the mammalian cochlea vibrates when the cochlea receives a sound stimulus. This mechanical vibration is transduced into hair cell receptor potentials and thereafter encoded by action potentials in the auditory nerve. Knowledge of the mechanical transformation that converts basilar membrane vibration into hair cell stimulation has been limited, until recently, to hypothetical geometric models. Experimental observations are largely lacking to prove or disprove the validity of these models. We have developed a hemicochlea preparation to visualize the kinematics of the cochlear micromechanism. Direct mechanical drive of 1-2 Hz sinusoidal command was applied to the basilar membrane. Vibration patterns of the basilar membrane, inner and outer hair cells, supporting cells, and tectorial membrane have been recorded concurrently by means of a video optical flow technique. Basilar membrane vibration was driven in a direction transversal to its plane. However, the direction of the resulting vibration was found to be essentially radial at the level of the reticular lamina and cuticular plates of inner and outer hair cells. The tectorial membrane vibration was mainly transversal. The transmission ratio between cilia displacement of inner and outer hair cells and basilar membrane vibration is in the range of 0.7-1.1. These observations support, in part, the classical geometric models at low frequencies. However, there appears to be less tectorial membrane motion than predicted, and it is largely in the transversal direction.
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