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Piezo- and Flexoelectric Membrane Materials Underlie Fast Biological Motors in the Inner Ear

  • Kathryn D Breneman (a1) and Richard D Rabbitt (a2)


The mammalian inner ear is remarkably sensitive to quiet sounds, exhibits over 100dB dynamic range, and has the exquisite ability to discriminate closely spaced tones even in the presence of noise. This performance is achieved, in part, through active mechanical amplification of vibrations by sensory hair cells within the inner ear. All hair cells are endowed with a bundle of motile microvilli, stereocilia, located at the apical end of the cell, and the more specialized outer hair cells (OHC's) are also endowed with somatic electromotility responsible for changes in cell length in response to perturbations in membrane potential. Both hair bundle and somatic motors are known to feed energy into the mechanical vibrations in the inner ear. The biophysical origin and relative significance of the motors remains a subject of intense research. Several biological motors have been identified in hair cells that might underlie the motor(s), including a cousin of the classical ATP driven actin-myosin motor found in skeletal muscle. Hydrolysis of ATP, however, is much too slow to be viable at audio frequencies on a cycle-by-cycle basis. Heuristically, the OHC somatic motor behaves as if the OHC lateral wall membrane were a piezoelectric material and the hair bundle motor behaves as if the plasma membrane were a flexoelectric material. We propose these observations from a continuum materials perspective are literally true. To examine this idea, we formulated mathematical models of the OHC lateral wall “piezoelectric” motor and the more ubiquitous “flexoelectric” hair bundle motor. Plausible biophysical mechanisms underlying piezo- and flexoelectircity were established. Model predictions were compared extensively to the available data. The models were then applied to study the power conversion efficiency of the motors. Results show that the material properties of the complex membranes in hair cells provide them with the ability to convert electrical power available in the inner ear cochlea into useful mechanical amplification of sound induced vibrations at auditory frequencies. We also examined how hair cell amplification might be controlled by the brain through efferent synaptic contacts on hair cells and found a simple mechanism to tune hearing to signals of interest to the listener by electrical control of these motors.



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Piezo- and Flexoelectric Membrane Materials Underlie Fast Biological Motors in the Inner Ear

  • Kathryn D Breneman (a1) and Richard D Rabbitt (a2)


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