Unraveling the mysteries of the cochlea and its connections with the brain
Version of Record online: 16 JUN 2006
Copyright © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist
Volume 289B, Issue 3, pages 90–91, May 2006
How to Cite
Laitman, J. T. (2006), Unraveling the mysteries of the cochlea and its connections with the brain. Anat. Rec., 289B: 90–91. doi: 10.1002/ar.b.20101
- Issue online: 16 JUN 2006
- Version of Record online: 16 JUN 2006
“The sound is what I remember,” my dad said. “The horrible, frightening, all engulfing sound. I can still hear the windows rattle, the shades flap and the beds creak. I would wait for what seemed forever for the quiet to return. Oh, how I prayed for the sound to stop hitting me!”
I can still hear in my mind's ear my late father's words describing his most vivid memories of his childhood in Paris during the First World War or, as he called it, “the Great War.” I wrote down all his words for a school report when I was a little boy—treasuring them today so many years after his death—as I was enraptured even then by how vividly he remembered the sounds of his youth. “Big Bertha was what we called the Beast, the great cannon that shelled us relentlessly,” my father recalled, “and her pounding was the lullaby we had to fall asleep to each and every night.” I can remember seeing his crisp blue-green eyes moisten as he spoke.
How remarkable, I remember thinking, that my dad could remember sounds decades after he heard them. How did he recall them? Could he really still hear them, as he professed, or was he just telling me another tale of a past world that I would never know? Where did those sounds “live,” and how could they make him so sad, so obviously in pain?
Sounds, and how we grasp them, transmit them, integrate, perceive, store, and recall them—how we hear them—is a subject of continuing fascination and exploration. Be it the harsh sounds that pummeled my father's memory, the majesty of musical notes, the gentle rustle of autumn leaves, or the tones and fluctuations of everyday speech, the nature of sounds and the anatomy that enables us to appreciate them have fascinated scientists since the time of the Egyptians. Indeed, many of our great anatomical forefathers have heard the siren call of ear research. From Vesalius's descriptions of the ossicles in the sacred Fabrica and Fallopius's detailing of the tympanic membrane in the 16th century, to Scarpa's discovery of the membranous labyrinth in the 18th century and Corti's insights on the structure of the cochlea itself in the 19th century, our ilk has dissected and studied every available bone, membrane, hair cell, and neuron. While much has obviously been learned, many mysteries still elude us.
The excitement and the hunt to track down the anatomy underlying the world of hearing is the focus of the April 2006 special issue of the Anatomical Record entitled “Structure and Function in the Auditory System: From Cochlea to Cortex.” The issue is guest-edited by David R. Friedland, a neuroanatomist and otolaryngologist, whose duality of experiences and background have given him a special perch from which he has been able to appreciate the cutting edge science in his field and its potential applications to medicine and surgery. One of his expressed intentions in doing such an issue was to put before scientists from different parts of the auditory sciences world—many of whom are not always familiar with related though differing approaches—the exciting anatomical advancements in the broader field. The result has been a most impressive presentation of the state-of-the-art hearing research that takes us literally from the twists and turns of the cochlea to the deepest crevices of the brain.
This issue is impressive both in scope and in showcasing the robust methods employed by auditory researchers today. Indeed, the range of papers includes those that correlate physiological function with gross anatomy to understand the developmental and evolutionary relationship of the vestibular labyrinth and cochlea; those using clinical scenarios to gain insight into tracing the evolution of the inner ear; a number of studies using molecular approaches to probe the underlying genetic contributions to auditory structure, function, and disease; and an array of neuronal studies that focus on the environment of the inner ear and its hair cells, specific cells in brainstem nuclei, communications from the inner ear to brain regions, and interconnections between anatomical portions of the brain such as the cortex and brainstem. The issue also highlights the continuing power of traditional anatomical approaches and the potency of new visualization modes. For example, elegant classic double labeling and tract tracing approaches explore the structural organization in the cochlear nucleus, while the power of new techniques such as functional neuroimaging (fMRI) are employed in fascinating explorations of music as a tool to understand cortical processing and, in turn, probe the general topic of how cortical hearing centers relate to traditionally held language areas.
While I do not know if I can really still “hear” the tones and undulations of my father's voice, at least we are getting closer to understanding how I heard them originally and where their memories might lie. Indeed, this excellent special issue will bring us ever nearer to unraveling the mysteries that lie in the cochlea and its liaisons to the world within the brain. This issue of the Anatomical Record is available online at http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/jhome/28243.