The high sensitivity and sharp frequency selectivity of acoustical signal transduction in the cochlea suggest that an active process pumps energy into the basilar membrane's oscillations. This function is generally attributed to outer hair cells, but its exact mechanism remains uncertain. Several classical models of amplification represent the load upon the basilar membrane as a single mass. Such models encounter a fundamental difficulty, however: the phase difference between basilar-membrane movement and the force generated by outer hair cells inhibits, rather than amplifies, the modeled basilar-membrane oscillations. For this reason, modelers must introduce artificially either negative impedance or an appropriate phase shift, neither of which is justified by physical analysis of the system. We consider here a physical model based upon the recent demonstration that the basilar membrane and reticular lamina can move independently, albeit with elastic coupling through outer hair cells. The mechanical model comprises two resonant masses, representing the basilar membrane and the reticular lamina, coupled through an intermediate spring, the outer hair cells. The spring's set point changes in response to displacement of the reticular lamina, which causes deflection of the hair bundles, variation of outer hair cell length and, hence, force production. Depending upon the frequency of the acoustical input, the basilar membrane and reticular lamina can oscillate either in phase or in counterphase. In the latter instance, the force produced by hair cells leads basilar-membrane oscillation, energy is pumped into basilar-membrane movement, and an external input can be strongly amplified. The model is also capable of producing spontaneous oscillation. In agreement with experimental observations, the model describes mechanical relaxation of the basilar membrane after electrical stimulation causes outer hair cells to change their length.
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