When sound waves enter the ear, they strike the eardrum and cause it to vibrate. Tiny bones in the ear amplify and transmit these vibrations to the fluid in the cochlea, creating pressure waves that travel along a narrowing canal in the coiled tube-like organ. The canal is one of two main chambers that are created by an elastic membrane that runs the length of the cochlea. The mechanical properties of this basilar membrane vary from very stiff at the broad, outer end to increasingly flexible toward the inner end as the chambers narrow. The basilar membranes graded properties cause the waves to grow and then die away. Different frequencies peak at different positions along the membrane.
Sensory cells are attached to the basilar membrane and have tufts of tiny hairs called stereocilia that stick up into adjacent structures in the canal. As the basilar membrane moves it tilts the sensory cells, causing the stereocilia to bend. The motion generates electric signals that travel along the auditory nerve to the brain. As a result, the sensory cells near the outer end of the cochlea detect high-pitched sounds, like the notes of a piccolo, while those at the inner end of the spiral detect lower-frequency sounds, like the booming of a bass drum.
This mechanical ordering of response from high to low frequencies works in the same fashion whether the cochlear tube is laid out straight or coiled in a spiral. But Manoussakis calculations predicted that the spiral shape causes the energy in the low-frequency waves to accumulate against the outside edge of the chamber. This uneven energy distribution, in turn, causes the membrane to move more toward the outer wall of the chamber, enhancing the bending of the stereocilia. The enhancement is strongest at the apex of the spiral, whe
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