An unusually powerful mode of low-frequency sound interference due to defective hair bundles of the auditory outer hair cells

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      Anne Lukaszewicz


      Kazusaku Kamiya, Vincent Michel, Fabrice Giraudet, Brigitte Riederer, Isabelle Foucher, Samantha Papal, Isabelle Perfettini, Sébastien Le Gal, Elisabeth Verpy, Weiliang Xia, Ursula Seidler, Maria-Magdalena Georgescu, Paul Avan, Aziz El-Amraoui, and Christine Petit



      A detrimental perceptive consequence of damaged auditory sensory hair cells consists in a pronounced masking effect exerted by low-frequency sounds, thought to occur when auditory threshold elevation substantially exceeds 40 dB. Here, we identified the submembrane scaffold protein Nherf1 as a hair-bundle component of the differentiating outer hair cells (OHCs). Nherf1−/− mice displayed OHC hair-bundle shape anomalies in the mid and basal cochlea, normally tuned to mid- and high-frequency tones, and mild (22–35 dB) hearing-threshold elevations restricted to midhigh sound frequencies. This mild decrease in hearing sensitivity was, however, discordant with almost nonresponding OHCs at the cochlear base as assessed by distortion-product otoacoustic emissions and cochlear microphonic potentials. Moreover, unlike wild-type mice, responses of Nherf1−/− mice to high-frequency (20–40 kHz) test tones were not masked by tones of neighboring frequencies. Instead, efficient maskers were characterized by their frequencies up to two octaves below the probe-tone frequency, unusually low intensities up to 25 dB below probe-tone level, and growth-of-masker slope (2.2 dB/dB) reflecting their compressive amplification. Together, these properties do not fit the current acknowledged features of a hypersensitivity of the basal cochlea to lower frequencies, but rather suggest a previously unidentified mechanism. Low-frequency maskers, we propose, may interact within the unaffected cochlear apical region with midhigh frequency sounds propagated there via a mode possibly using the persistent contact of misshaped OHC hair bundles with the tectorial membrane. Our findings thus reveal a source of misleading interpretations of hearing thresholds and of hypervulnerability to low-frequency sound interference.


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