The ear is the sense organ that detects sounds. The vertebrate ear shows a common biology from fish to humans, with variations in structure according to order and species. It not only acts as a receiver for sound, but plays a major role in the sense of balance and body position. The ear is part of the auditory system.
The word "ear" may be used correctly to describe the entire organ or just the visible portion. In most animals, the visible ear is a flap of tissue that is also called the pinna. The pinna may be all that shows of the ear, but it serves only the first of many steps in hearing and plays no role in the sense of balance. In people, the pinna is often called the auricle. Vertebrates have a pair of ears, placed symmetrically on opposite sides of the head. This arrangement aids in the ability to localize sound sources.
The outer part of the ear collects sound. That sound pressure is amplified through the middle portion of the ear and, in land animals, passed from the medium of air into a liquid medium. The change from air to liquid occurs because air surrounds the head and is contained in the ear canal and middle ear, but not in the inner ear. The inner ear is hollow, embedded in the temporal bone, the densest bone of the body. The hollow channels of the inner ear are filled with liquid, and contain a sensory epithelium that is studded with hair cells. The microscopic "hairs" of these cells are structural protein filaments that project out into the fluid. The hair cells are mechanoreceptors that release a chemical neurotransmitter when stimulated. Sound waves moving through fluid push the filaments; if the filaments bend over enough it causes the hair cells to fire. In this way sound waves are transformed into nerve impulses. In vision, the rods and cones of the retina play a similar role with light as the hair cells do with sound. The nerve impulses travel from the left and right ears through the eighth cranial nerve to both sides of the brain stem and up to the portion of the cerebral cortex dedicated to sound. This auditory part of the cerebral cortex is in the temporal lobe.
The part of the ear that is dedicated to sensing balance and position also sends impulses through the eighth cranial nerve, the VIIIth nerve's Vestibular Portion. Those impulses are sent to the vestibular portion of the central nervous system. The human ear can generally hear sounds with frequencies between 20 Hz and 20 kHz (the audio range). Although the sensation of hearing requires an intact and functioning auditory portion of the central nervous system as well as a working ear, human deafness (extreme insensitivity to sound) most commonly occurs because of abnormalities of the inner ear, rather than the nerves or tracts of the central auditory system.
The shape of outer ear of mammals varies widely across species. However the inner workings of mammalian ears (including humans') are very similar.
The pinna helps direct sound through the ear canal to the tympanic membrane (eardrum). The framework of the auricle consists of a single piece of yellow fibrocartilage with a complicated relief on the anterior, concave side and a fairly smooth configuration on the posterior, convex side. The Darwinian tubercle, which is present in some people, lies in the descending part of the helix and corresponds to the true ear tip of the long-eared mammals. The lobule merely contains subcutaneous tissue. In some animals with mobile pinnae (like the horse), each pinna can be aimed independently to better receive the sound. For these animals, the pinnae help localize the direction of the sound source. Human beings localize sound within the central nervous system, by comparing arrival-time differences and loudness from each ear, in brain circuits that are connected to both ears. This process is commonly referred to as EPS, or Echo Positioning System.
The auricles also have an effect on facial appearance. In Western societies, protruding ears (present in about 5% of ethnic Europeans) have been considered unattractive, particularly if asymmetric. The first surgery to reduce the projection of prominent ears was published in the medical literature in 1881.
The ears have also been ornamented with jewelry for thousands of years, traditionally by piercing of the earlobe. In some cultures, ornaments are placed to stretch and enlarge the earlobes to make them very large. Tearing of the earlobe from the weight of heavy earrings, or from traumatic pull of an earring (for example by snagging on a sweater being removed), is fairly common. The repair of such a tear is usually not difficult.
A cosmetic surgical procedure to reduce the size or change the shape of the ear is called an otoplasty. In the rare cases when no pinna is formed (atresia), or is extremely small (microtia) reconstruction of the auricle is possible. Most often, a cartilage graft from another part of the body (generally, rib cartilage) is used to form the matrix of the ear, and skin grafts or rotation flaps are used to provide the covering skin. However, when babies are born without an auricle on one or both sides, or when the auricle is very tiny, the ear canal is ordinarily either small or absent, and the middle ear often has deformities. The initial medical intervention is aimed at assessing the baby's hearing and the condition of the ear canal, as well as the middle and inner ear. Depending on the results of tests, reconstruction of the outer ear is done in stages, with planning for any possible repairs of the rest of the ear.
In humans and other land animals the middle ear (like the ear canal) is normally filled with air. Unlike the open ear canal, however, the air of the middle ear is not in direct contact with the atmosphere outside the body. The Eustachian tube connects from the chamber of the middle ear to the back of the pharynx. The middle ear is very much like a specialized paranasal sinus, called the tympanic cavity; it, like the paranasal sinuses, is a hollow mucosa-lined cavity in the skull that is ventilated through the nose. The mastoid portion of the human temporal bone, which can be felt as a bump in the skull behind the pinna, also contains air, which is ventilated through the middle ear. Normally, the Eustachian tube is collapsed, but it gapes open both with swallowing and with positive pressure. When taking off in an airplane, the surrounding air pressure goes from higher (on the ground) to lower (in the sky). The air in the middle ear expands as the plane gains altitude, and pushes its way into the back of the nose and mouth. On the way down, the volume of air in the middle ear shrinks, and a slight vacuum is produced. Active opening of the Eustachian tube is required to equalize the pressure between the middle ear and the surrounding atmosphere as the plane descends. The diver also experiences this change in pressure, but with greater rates of pressure change; active opening of the Eustachian tube is required more frequently as the diver goes deeper into higher pressure.
The arrangement of the tympanic membrane and ossicles works to efficiently couple the sound from the opening of the ear canal to the cochlea. There are several simple mechanisms that combine to increase the sound pressure. The first is the "hydraulic principle". The surface area of the tympanic membrane is many times that of the stapes footplate. Sound energy strikes the tympanic membrane and is concentrated to the smaller footplate. A second mechanism is the "lever principle". The dimensions of the articulating ear ossicles lead to an increase in the force applied to the stapes footplate compared with that applied to the malleus. A third mechanism channels the sound pressure to one end of the cochlea, and protects the other end from being struck by sound waves. In humans, this is called "round window protection", and will be more fully discussed in the next section.
Abnormalities such as impacted ear wax (occlusion of the external ear canal), fixed or missing ossicles, or holes in the tympanic membrane generally produce conductive hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss may also result from middle ear inflammation causing fluid build-up in the normally air-filled space. Tympanoplasty is the general name of the operation to repair the middle ear's tympanic membrane and ossicles. Grafts from muscle fascia are ordinarily used to rebuild an intact ear drum. Sometimes artificial ear bones are placed to substitute for damaged ones, or a disrupted ossicular chain is rebuilt in order to conduct sound effectively.
Hair cells are also the receptor cells involved in balance, although the hair cells of the auditory and vestibular systems of the ear are not identical. Vestibular hair cells are stimulated by movement of fluid in the semicircular canals and the utricle and saccule. Firing of vestibular hair cells stimulates the Vestibular portion of the eighth cranial nerve.
The lobule of the ear (ear lobe) is the one part of the human auricle that normally contains no cartilage. Instead, it is a wedge of adipose tissue (fat) covered by skin. There are many normal variations to the shape of the ear lobe, which may be small or large. Tears of the earlobe can be generally repaired with good results. Since there is no cartilage, there is not the risk of deformity from a blood clot or pressure injury to the ear lobe.
Other injuries to the external ear occur fairly frequently, and can leave a major deformity. Some of the more common ones include, laceration from glass, knives, and bite injuries, avulsion injuries, cancer, frostbite, and burns.
It has long been known that humans, and indeed other primates such as the orangutan and chimpanzee have ear muscles that are minimally developed and non-functional, yet still large enough to be easily identifiable. These undeveloped muscles are vestigial structures. A muscle that cannot move the ear, for whatever reason, can no longer be said to have any biological function. This serves as evidence of homology between related species. In humans there is variability in these muscles, such that some people are able to move their ears in various directions, and it has been said that it may be possible for others to gain such movement by repeated trials.
Simpler structures allow arthropods to detect near field sounds. Spiders and cockroaches, for example, have hairs on their legs which are used for detecting sound. Caterpillars may also have hairs on their body that perceive vibrations and allow them to respond to the sound.
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