Saturday, June 6, 2009

Hearing Design Research

One of the many fascinating designs in biology is the workings of our senses. Here, for example, is a description of new findings on the actions of hair cells in the inner ear. It is yet another example of biology leaving evolution in the dust:

Microvilli (stereocilia) projecting from the apex of hair cells in the inner ear are actively motile structures that feed energy into the vibration of the inner ear and enhance sensitivity to sound. The biophysical mechanism underlying the hair bundle motor is unknown. In this study, we examined a membrane flexoelectric origin for active movements in stereocilia and conclude that it is likely to be an important contributor to mechanical power output by hair bundles. We formulated a realistic biophysical model of stereocilia incorporating stereocilia dimensions, the known flexoelectric coefficient of lipid membranes, mechanical compliance, and fluid drag. Electrical power enters the stereocilia through displacement sensitive ion channels and, due to the small diameter of stereocilia, is converted to useful mechanical power output by flexoelectricity. This motor augments molecular motors associated with the mechanosensitive apparatus itself that have been described previously. The model reveals stereocilia to be highly efficient and fast flexoelectric motors that capture the energy in the extracellular electro-chemical potential of the inner ear to generate mechanical power output. The power analysis provides an explanation for the correlation between stereocilia height and the tonotopic organization of hearing organs. Further, results suggest that flexoelectricity may be essential to the exquisite sensitivity and frequency selectivity of non-mammalian hearing organs at high auditory frequencies, and may contribute to the “cochlear amplifier” in mammals.