Traveling waves in the inner ear exhibit an amplitude peak that shifts with frequency. The peaking is commonly believed to rely on motile processes that amplify the wave by inserting energy. We recorded the vibrations at adjacent positions on the basilar membrane in sensitive gerbil cochleae and tested the putative power amplification in two ways. First, we determined the energy flux of the traveling wave at its peak and compared it to the acoustic power entering the ear, thereby obtaining the net cochlear power gain. For soft sounds, the energy flux at the peak was 1 ± 0.6 dB less than the middle ear input power. For more intense sounds, increasingly smaller fractions of the acoustic power actually reached the peak region. Thus, we found no net power amplification of soft sounds and a strong net attenuation of intense sounds. Second, we analyzed local wave propagation on the basilar membrane. We found that the waves slowed down abruptly when approaching their peak, causing an energy densification that quantitatively matched the amplitude peaking, similar to the growth of sea waves approaching the beach. Thus, we found no local power amplification of soft sounds and strong local attenuation of intense sounds. The most parsimonious interpretation of these findings is that cochlear sensitivity is not realized by amplifying acoustic energy, but by spatially focusing it, and that dynamic compression is realized by adjusting the amount of dissipation to sound intensity.

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Department of Neuroscience

van der Heijden, M., & Versteegh, C. (2015). Energy Flux in the Cochlea: Evidence Against Power Amplification of the Traveling Wave. J A R O, 16(5), 581–597. doi:10.1007/s10162-015-0529-5