Mechanical Frequency Tuning by Sensory Hair Cells, the Receptors and Amplifiers of the Inner Ear
We recognize sounds by analyzing their frequency content. Different frequency components evoke distinct mechanical waves that each travel within the hearing organ, or cochlea, to a frequency-specific place. These signals are detected by hair cells, the ear's sensory receptors, in response to vibrations of mechanically sensitive antennas termed hair bundles. An active process enhances the sensitivity, sharpens the frequency tuning, and broadens the dynamic range of hair cells through several mechanisms, including active hair-bundle motility. A dynamic interplay between negative stiffness mediated by ion channels’ gating forces and delayed force feedback owing to myosin motors and channel reclosure by calcium ions brings the hair bundle to the vicinity of an oscillatory instability—a Hopf bifurcation. Operation near a Hopf bifurcation provides nonlinear generic features that are characteristic of hearing. Multiple gradients at molecular, cellular, and supercellular scales tune hair cells to characteristic frequencies that cover our auditory range.