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Perception-based protection from low-frequency sounds may not be enough 

Author:  | Health, Noise

Abstract. Hearing and perception in the mammalian ear are mediated by the inner hair cells (IHC). IHCs are fluid-coupled to mechanical vibrations and have been characterized as velocity-sensitive, making them quite insensitive to low-frequency sounds. But the ear also contains more numerous outer hair cells (OHC), which are not fluid coupled and are characterized as displacement sensitive. The OHCs are more sensitive than IHCs to low frequencies and respond to very low-frequency sounds at levels below those that are perceived. OHC are connected to the brain by type II afferent fibers to networks that may further attenuate perception of low frequencies. These same pathways are also involved in alerting and phantom sounds (tinnitus). Because of these anatomic configurations, low-frequency sounds that are not perceived may cause influence in ways that have not yet been adequately studied. We present data showing that the ear’s response to low-frequency sounds is influenced by the presence of higher-frequency sounds such as those in the speech frequency range, with substantially larger responses generated when higher-frequency components are absent. We conclude that the physiological effects of low-frequency sounds are more complex than is widely appreciated. Based on this knowledge, we have to be concerned that sounds that are not perceived are clearly transduced by the ear and may still affect people in ways that have yet to be fully understood.

Presented at Inter-Noise 2012, New York, N.Y., August 19-22

Alec N. Salt & Jeffery T. Lichtenhan
Department of Otolaryngology, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, Mo.

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