The organs of the vertebrate inner ear respond to a variety of mechanical stimuli: semicircular canals are sensitive to angular velocity, the saccule and utricle respond to linear acceleration (including gravity), and the cochlea is sensitive to airborne vibration, or sound. The ontogenically related lateral line organs, spaced along the sides of aquatic vertebrates, sense water movement. All these organs have a common receptor cell type, which is called the hair cell, for the bundle of enlarged microvilli protruding from its apical surface. In different organs, specialized accessory structures serve to collect, filter, and then deliver these physical stimuli to the hair bundles. The proximal stimulus for all hair cells is deflection of the mechanosensitive hair bundle. Hair cells convert mechanical information contained within the temporal pattern of hair bundle deflections into electrical signals, which they transmit to the brain for interpretation.
Jeffrey R. Holt and Gwenaëlle S.G. Géléoc
Josef P. Rauschecker
When one talks about hearing, some may first imagine the auricle (or external ear), which is the only visible part of the auditory system in humans and other mammals. Its shape and size vary among people, but it does not tell us much about a person’s abilities to hear (except perhaps their ability to localize sounds in space, where the shape of the auricle plays a certain role). Most of what is used for hearing is inside the head, particularly in the brain. The inner ear transforms mechanical vibrations into electrical signals; then the auditory nerve sends these signals into the brainstem, where intricate preprocessing occurs. Although auditory brainstem mechanisms are an important part of central auditory processing, it is the processing taking place in the cerebral cortex (with the thalamus as the mediator), which enables auditory perception and cognition. Human speech and the appreciation of music can hardly be imagined without a complex cortical network of specialized regions, each contributing different aspects of auditory cognitive abilities. During the evolution of these abilities in higher vertebrates, especially birds and mammals, the cortex played a crucial role, so a great deal of what is referred to as central auditory processing happens there. Whether it is the recognition of one’s mother’s voice, listening to Pavarotti singing or Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello, hearing or reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, it will evoke electrical vibrations in the auditory cortex, but it does not end there. Large parts of frontal and parietal cortex receive auditory signals originating in auditory cortex, forming processing streams for auditory object recognition and auditory-motor control, before being channeled into other parts of the brain for comprehension and enjoyment.