Sensory Systems/Auditory Anatomy

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Anatomy of the Auditory System[edit]

Human (external) ear

The aim of this section is to explain the anatomy of the auditory system of humans. The chapter illustrates the composition of auditory organs in the sequence that acoustic information proceeds during sound perception.
Please note that the core information for “Sensory Organ Components” can also be found on the Wikipedia page “Auditory system”, excluding some changes like extensions and specifications made in this article. (see also: Wikipedia Auditory system)

The auditory system senses sound waves, that are changes in air pressure, and converts these changes into electrical signals. These signals can then be processed, analyzed and interpreted by the brain. For the moment, let's focus on the structure and components of the auditory system. The auditory system consists mainly of two parts:

  • the ear and
  • the auditory nervous system (central auditory system)

The ear[edit]

The ear is the organ where the first processing of sound occurs and where the sensory receptors are located. It consists of three parts:

  • outer ear
  • middle ear
  • inner ear
Anatomy of the human ear (green: outer ear / red: middle ear / purple: inner ear)

Outer ear[edit]

Function: Gathering sound energy and amplification of sound pressure.

The folds of cartilage surrounding the ear canal (external auditory meatus, external acoustic meatus) are called the pinna. It is the visible part of the ear. Sound waves are reflected and attenuated when they hit the pinna, and these changes provide additional information that will help the brain determine the direction from which the sounds came. The sound waves enter the auditory canal, a deceptively simple tube. The ear canal amplifies sounds that are between 3 and 12 kHz. At the far end of the ear canal is the tympanic membrane (eardrum), which marks the beginning of the middle ear.

Middle ear[edit]

Micro-CT image of the ossicular chain showing the relative position of each ossicle.

Function: Transmission of acoustic energy from air to the cochlea.
Sound waves traveling through the ear canal will hit the tympanic membrane (tympanum, eardrum). This wave information travels across the air-filled tympanic cavity (middle ear cavity) via a series of bones: the malleus (hammer), incus (anvil) and stapes (stirrup). These ossicles act as a lever and a teletype, converting the lower-pressure eardrum sound vibrations into higher-pressure sound vibrations at another, smaller membrane called the oval (or elliptical) window, which is one of two openings into the cochlea of the inner ear. The second opening is called round window. It allows the fluid in the cochlea to move.

The malleus articulates with the tympanic membrane via the manubrium, whereas the stapes articulates with the oval window via its footplate. Higher pressure is necessary because the inner ear beyond the oval window contains liquid rather than air. The sound is not amplified uniformly across the ossicular chain. The stapedius reflex of the middle ear muscles helps protect the inner ear from damage.

The middle ear still contains the sound information in wave form; it is converted to nerve impulses in the cochlea.

Inner ear[edit]

Structural diagram of the cochlea Cross section of the cochlea
Cochlea.svg Cochlea-crosssection.svg


Function: Transformation of mechanical waves (sound) into electric signals (neural signals).

The inner ear consists of the cochlea and several non-auditory structures. The cochlea is a snail-shaped part of the inner ear. It has three fluid-filled sections: scala tympani (lower gallery), scala media (middle gallery, cochlear duct) and scala vestibuli (upper gallery). The cochlea supports a fluid wave driven by pressure across the basilar membrane separating two of the sections (scala tympani and scala media). The basilar membrane is about 3 cm long and between 0.5 to 0.04 mm wide. Reissner’s membrane (vestibular membrane) separates scala media and scala vestibuli.

Strikingly, one section, the scala media, contains an extracellular fluid similar in composition to endolymph, which is usually found inside of cells. The organ of Corti is located in this duct, and transforms mechanical waves to electric signals in neurons. The other two sections, scala tympani and scala vestibuli, are located within the bony labyrinth which is filled with fluid called perilymph. The chemical difference between the two fluids endolymph (in scala media) and perilymph (in scala tympani and scala vestibuli) is important for the function of the inner ear.

Organ of Corti[edit]

The organ of Corti forms a ribbon of sensory epithelium which runs lengthwise down the entire cochlea. The hair cells of the organ of Corti transform the fluid waves into nerve signals. The journey of a billion nerves begins with this first step; from here further processing leads to a series of auditory reactions and sensations.

Transition from ear to auditory nervous system[edit]

Section through the spiral organ of Corti

Hair cells[edit]

Hair cells are columnar cells, each with a bundle of 100-200 specialized cilia at the top, for which they are named. These cilia are the mechanosensors for hearing. The shorter ones are called stereocilia, and the longest one at the end of each haircell bundle kinocilium. The location of the kinocilium determines the on-direction, i.e. the direction of deflection inducing the maximum hair cell excitation. Lightly resting atop the longest cilia is the tectorial membrane, which moves back and forth with each cycle of sound, tilting the cilia and allowing electric current into the hair cell.

The function of hair cells is not fully established up to now. Currently, the knowledge of the function of hair cells allows to replace the cells by cochlear implants in case of hearing lost. However, more research into the function of the hair cells may someday even make it possible for the cells to be repaired. The current model is that cilia are attached to one another by “tip links”, structures which link the tips of one cilium to another. Stretching and compressing, the tip links then open an ion channel and produce the receptor potential in the hair cell. Note that a deflection of 100 nanometers already elicits 90% of the full receptor potential.

Neurons[edit]

The nervous system distinguishes between nerve fibres carrying information towards the central nervous system and nerve fibres carrying the information away from it:

  • Afferent neurons (also sensory or receptor neurons) carry nerve impulses from receptors (sense organs) towards the central nervous system
  • Efferent neurons (also motor or effector neurons) carry nerve impulses away from the central nervous system to effectors such as muscles or glands (and also the ciliated cells of the inner ear)

Afferent neurons innervate cochlear inner hair cells, at synapses where the neurotransmitter glutamate communicates signals from the hair cells to the dendrites of the primary auditory neurons.

There are far fewer inner hair cells in the cochlea than afferent nerve fibers. The neural dendrites belong to neurons of the auditory nerve, which in turn joins the vestibular nerve to form the vestibulocochlear nerve, or cranial nerve number VIII'

Efferent projections from the brain to the cochlea also play a role in the perception of sound. Efferent synapses occur on outer hair cells and on afferent (towards the brain) dendrites under inner hair cells.

Auditory nervous system[edit]

The sound information, now re-encoded in form of electric signals, travels down the auditory nerve (acoustic nerve, vestibulocochlear nerve, VIIIth cranial nerve), through intermediate stations such as the cochlear nuclei and superior olivary complex of the brainstem and the inferior colliculus of the midbrain, being further processed at each waypoint. The information eventually reaches the thalamus, and from there it is relayed to the cortex. In the human brain, the primary auditory cortex is located in the temporal lobe.

Primary auditory cortex[edit]

The primary auditory cortex is the first region of cerebral cortex to receive auditory input.

Perception of sound is associated with the right posterior superior temporal gyrus (STG). The superior temporal gyrus contains several important structures of the brain, including Brodmann areas 41 and 42, marking the location of the primary auditory cortex, the cortical region responsible for the sensation of basic characteristics of sound such as pitch and rhythm.

The auditory association area is located within the temporal lobe of the brain, in an area called the Wernicke's area, or area 22. This area, near the lateral cerebral sulcus, is an important region for the processing of acoustic signals so that they can be distinguished as speech, music, or noise.