Journal of Biosciences

, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp 385–404 | Cite as

Detection without deflection? A hypothesis for direct sensing of sound pressure by hair cells

  • Andrew Bell


It is widely thought that organisms detect sound by sensing the deflection of hair-like projections, the stereocilia, at the apex of hair cells. In the case of mammals, the standard interpretation is that hair cells in the cochlea respond to deflection of stereocilia induced by motion generated by a hydrodynamic travelling wave. But in the light of persistent anomalies, an alternative hypothesis seems to have some merit: that sensing cells (in particular the outer hair cells) may, at least at low intensities, be reacting to a different stimulus — the rapid pressure wave that sweeps through the cochlear fluids at the speed of sound in water. This would explain why fast responses are sometimes seen before the peak of the travelling wave. Yet how could cells directly sense fluid pressure? Here, a model is constructed of the outer hair cell as a pressure vessel able to sense pressure variations across its cuticular pore, and this ‘fontanelle’ model, based on the sensing action of the basal body at this compliant spot, could explain the observed anomalies. Moreover, the fontanelle model can be applied to a wide range of other organisms, suggesting that direct pressure detection is a general mode of sensing complementary to stereociliar displacement.


Basal body cochlea fontanelle kinocilium outer hair cell pressure 


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© Indian Academy of Sciences 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew Bell
    • 1
  1. 1.Research School of Biological SciencesThe Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

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