Musings of a Political Scientist

Human Ear

3D Human Ear Cross-Section by Bryan Brandenburg

The Human Ear

Outer Ear

The outer ear is the most external portion of the ear. The outer ear includes the pinna (also called auricle), the ear canal, and the very most superficial layer of the ear drum (also called the tympanic membrane). In humans, and almost all vertebrates, the only visible portion of the ear is the outer ear. Although the word “ear” may properly refer to the pinna (the flesh covered cartilage appendage on either side of the head), this portion of the ear is not vital for hearing.

The complicated design of the human outer ear does help capture sound, but the most important functional aspect of the human outer ear is the ear canal itself. Unless the canal is open, hearing will be dampened. Ear wax (medical name – cerumen) is produced by glands in the skin of the outer portion of the ear canal. This outer ear canal skin is applied to cartilage; the thinner skin of the deep canal lies on the bone of the skull. Only the thicker cerumen-producing ear canal skin has hairs. The outer ear ends at the most superficial layer of the tympanic membrane. The tympanic membrane is commonly called the ear drum.

Middle Ear

The middle ear, an air-filled cavity behind the ear drum (tympanic membrane), includes the three ear bones or ossicles: the malleus (or hammer), incus (or anvil), and stapes (or stirrup). The opening of the Eustachian tube is also within the middle ear. The malleus has a long process (the handle) that is attached to the mobile portion of the ear drum. The incus is the bridge between the malleus and stapes. The stapes is the smallest named bone in the human body. The three bones are arranged so that movement of the tympanic membrane causes movement of the malleus, which causes movement of the incus, which causes movement of the stapes. When the stapes footplate pushes on the oval window, it causes movement of fluid within the cochlea (a portion of the inner 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 in humans 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 temporal bone, which can be felt as a bump in the skull behind the pinna, also contains air, which ventilates through the middle ear.

Inner Ear

The inner ear includes both the organ of hearing (the cochlea) and a sense organ that is attuned to the effects of both gravity and motion labyrinth or vestibular apparatus. The balance portion of the inner ear consists of three semi-circular canals and the vestibule. The inner ear is encased in the hardest bone of the body. Within this ivory hard bone, there are fluid-filled hollows. Within the cochlea are three fluid filled spaces: the tympanic canal, the vestibular canal, and the middle canal. The eighth cranial nerve comes from the brain stem to enter the inner ear. When sound strikes the ear drum, the movement is transferred to the footplate of the stapes, which presses into one of the fluid-filled ducts of the cochlea. The fluid inside this duct is moved, flowing against the receptor cells of the organ of Corti, which fire. These stimulate the Spiral Ganglion, which sends information through the auditory portion of the eighth cranial nerve to the brain.

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.