The ear diane L. M. Bick, Phd reading: Gartner & Hiatt, Chapter 19; Klein and McKenzie, pp319-325 Learning Objectives

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Diane L. M. Bick, PhD
Reading: Gartner & Hiatt, Chapter 19; Klein and McKenzie, pp319-325

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe the structural and histological components of the outer, middle, and inner ear.

  • Know the components of the membranous and bony labyrinths.

  • Describe the structures found in the 3 scala of the inner ear.

Key Words: Tympanic cavity, external auditory meatus, Eustachian tube, tympanic membrane, cupula, organ of Corti, perilymph, endolymph, ampulla, utricle, saccule, otoconia, crista ampullaris, macula, stria vascularis, vestibular membrane, basilar membrane, scalas.


  • Paired sensory organs that consist of the auditory system and the vestibular system.

  • Composed of external, middle, and inner ear.



  • Auricle (or pinna) consists of elastic cartilage.

Covered by keratinized stratified squamous epithelium with hairs, sebaceous glands, and sweat glands.

  • External auditory meatus extends from the auricle to the tympanic membrane of the middle ear.

Outer one-third of wall composed of elastic cartilage that is continuous with auricle. Inner two-thirds of wall is formed by the temporal bone. Lined by stratified squamous epithelium with hairs, sebaceous glands, and ceruminous glands. Secretions of sebaceous and ceruminous glands combine to form cerumen.


Consists of tympanic cavity and its components - tympanic membrane (eardrum), 3 ossicles, and auditory or Eustachian tube. Tympanic cavity is an air-filled space.

  • Lined by simple squamous to low cuboidal epithelium. Cells become ciliated and cuboidal near the opening of the auditory tube.

  • Lateral wall is composed of the tympanic membrane; medial wall is shared by the inner ear.

  • Medial wall contains the oval window and the round window.

Auditory ossicles = malleus (hammer), incus (anvil), and stapes (stirrup).

  • Composed of compact bone joined by synovial joints\

  • Malleus is attached to inner aspect of tympanic membrane. Stapes is attached to the oval window of the inner ear by a fibrous ligament. Incus joins the malleus and the stapes.

  • Associated with 2 skeletal muscles, the Tensor Tympani (attached to the malleus), and the Stapedius (attached to the stapes).

Tympanic membrane is a thin, rigid, semitransparent membrane between external and middle ears.

  • Consists of a central core of connective tissue containing fibrous tissue and elastic fibers.

  • External surface covered by stratified squamous epithelium; inner surface covered by simple low cuboidal epithelium.

  • Divided into 2 parts. Lower four-fifths is the pars tensa and contains an organized core of connective tissue. Upper one-fifth is the pars flaccida (lacks a middle fibrous layer).

Auditory Tube (Eustachian tube) extends from tympanic cavity to nasopharynx.

  • Wall closest to the tympanic cavity is composed of bone. Is then replaced by elastic cartilage, except at the opening into the nasopharynx where it becomes hyaline cartilage.

  • Lined by ciliated epithelium ranging from simple low columnar to pseudostratified columnar. Towards the nasopharynx end, seromucous glands with goblet cells and diffuse lymphoid tissue are present.

  • Primary function is to equalize air pressure between the tympanic cavity and the external environment. The walls are normally apposed to one another; however, during swallowing and yawning, the walls separate, allowing air to enter the tympanic cavity.


Consists of a series of membranous sacs and ducts: membranous labyrinth - encased within a series of bony cavities and canals, and bony labyrinth - located within the temporal bone. Bony labyrinth contains perilymph; membranous labyrinth contains endolymph.

Terminology Applied to the Inner Ear Labyrinths

Bony Labyrinth

Membranous Labyrinth




Semicircular canals

Semicircular ducts


Cochlear duct (Scala Media)


  • Vestibule - central cavity of the bony labyrinth. Contains the utricle and the saccule.

  • Semicircular canals (superior, lateral, and posterior) extend posteriorly from the vestibule, oriented at right angles to one another. At one end of each is a dilatation, the ampulla.

  • Cochlea coils like a snail shell around a central pillar of bone, the modiolus. Projecting from the modiolus is a partial shelf of bone, the spiral lamina. Sitting on the spiral lamina is the cochlear duct.


  • All epithelial-lined sacs and ducts communicate with each other, and contain endolymph. External to the membranous labyrinth is perilymph.

  • Are 5 sensory receptor regions associated with the vestibular system - one in the utricle, one in the saccule, and one each for the 3 semicircular ducts. There is a 6th sensory receptor associated with the auditory system located in the duct of the cochlea.



  • Macula is the sensory region. It is made up of 3 kinds of cells:

  1. Sustentacular (or supporting) cell -- tall columnar with short microvilli.

  2. Type I sensory hair cell (has a single cup-shaped nerve ending).

  3. Type II sensory hair cell (contains many afferent nerve endings).

  • Each hair cell has one kinocilium and many stereocilia which radiate out from the central kinocilium.

  • Stereocilia and kinocilium are embedded in a gelatinous membrane, the otolithic membrane, which sits on top of the sensory cells. The membrane is produced by the sustentacular cells.

  • On the surface of the otolithic membrane are otoliths or otoconia. Otoliths respond to gravity and detect positional changes during movement of the body.

  • Three semicircular ducts are located within their respective semicircular canals.

  • At the end of each duct is the ampulla, which contains the sensory region, the crista

ampullaris. (G&H, p403)

  • Crista ampullaris also contains supporting cells and 2 types of sensory hair cells.

  • Sensory hair cells are embedded in a gelatinous membrane, the cupula. The cupula is tall and extends toward the wall opposite the crista ampullaris. There are no otoliths associated with the cupula (seen below).

Crista Ampullaris

DUCT OF THE COCHLEA (Cochlear duct)

  • Cochlear duct lies in the bony cochlear labyrinth between the osseous spiral lamina and the external wall of the bony cochlea. It spirals around the modiolus 2 3/4 turns. The scala media is the space within the cochlear duct; it is filled with endolymph.

  • The cochlear duct and the osseous spiral lamina divide the cochlea into 2 additional spaces: Scala vestibuli and scala tympani; are continuous with one another by means of a tiny opening, called the helicotrema, located at the blind end of the bony cochlea. Scala vestibuli and tympani are filled with perilymph.

  • Duct is triangular in shape.

  • The basilar membrane forms the floor of the cochlear duct, and attaches to the osseous spiral lamina and extends laterally to the bony wall of the cochlea. Composed of connective tissue core of collagen fibers. Epithelial cells line the side facing the scala tympani. The side facing the scala media is composed of columnar supporting and sensory cells that make up the Organ of Corti.

  • The lateral cochlear wall is attached to the external bony wall of the cochlea. It consists of:

Spiral ligament: a meshwork of fibrils and blood vessels. Not a true ligament since it is not composed of organized dense connective tissue.

  • Spiral prominence: lined by cuboidal epithelial cells and involved in homeostasis of cochlear fluids.

  • Stria vascularis: a highly vascular region composed of cells believed to secrete endolymph.

  • The vestibular membrane, also known as Reissner's membrane, forms the 3rd wall. It is composed of 2 layers of simple squamous epithelium.

Organ of Corti

  • Composed of inner hair cells and outer hair cells. Approximately 4 times as many outer as inner hair cells.

  • Inner hair cells lie in a single row along the length of the basilar membrane close to the medial aspect of the duct ("inner"). They are completely surrounded by supporting cells.

  • Outer hair cells are cylindrical and lie in 3-5 rows along the basilar membrane. Supporting cells surround only their apical and basal surfaces; fluid bathes the medial surfaces.

  • Each hair cell has numerous stereocilia on its apical surface. Inner hair cells have fewer stereocilia than outer hair cells.

  • The stereocilia of the outer hair cells are embedded in a gelatinous tectorial membrane.

  • Although the tectorial membrane extends over the top of the inner hair cells, their stereocilia are free; inner hair cell stereocilia are not embedded in the tectorial membrane.

  • At the base of each hair cell are efferent and afferent nerve endings. These nerve endings transmit impulses to the bipolar neurons of the spiral ganglion.

  • There are several different kinds of supporting cells in the organ of Corti. Their main function is to either directly or indirectly support the sensory cells.

Organ of Corti


  • Air-borne vibrations are collected in the external ear and must be conveyed to the inner ear without losing energy. This is accomplished via the middle ear that matches the acoustic properties of air to the more dense fluid of the inner ear.

  • Vibrations must have access to the sensory cells of the inner ear that are bathed in fluid, which is encased in bone, and potentially incompressible (not incomprehensible). So there has to be one opening in the inner ear for vibrations to enter and another opening to act as a release valve.

  • The base of the stapes rocks in and out against the oval window - this is the entrance for the vibrations.

  • Fluid vibrations are transmitted as pressure waves through the perilymph of the scala vestibuli. The waves pass through the vestibular membrane to the underlying endolymph. The waves continue on through the basilar membrane) to the perilymph of the scala tympani, and are eventually dissipated via the round window.

  • The round window serves as the release valve - it can push out or expand as needed.

  • Different frequencies of sound cause different movements (or displacement) of the basilar membrane.

  • The stereocilia of the outer hair cells of the organ of Corti are embedded in the tectorial membrane. Fluid displacement in the inner ear causes the stereocilia to bend; this results in the release of neurotransmitters from the basal portion of the hair cells that leads to neural impulses. These impulses are transmitted via bipolar neurons in the spiral ganglion to the auditory branch of the 8th cranial nerve.


Slide 26, External Ear. Identify the following structures.

  • Stratified squamous epithelium covering all surfaces. Is it keratinized or nonkeratinized?

  • Hair follicles.

  • Sebaceous glands and sweat glands.

  • Internal core of cartilage. What kind is it?

  • What type of connective tissue is present? Identify blood vessels and nerves.

If you really feel the need to once again look at the monkey ear, review Slide 27 as well. The cartilage shows up particularly well in this section due to the type of stain used.

Slide 63, Cochlea: The tissue has been stained with Mallory-azan stain, therefore:

Blue = bone, Red = cell nuclei, bone marrow, skeletal muscle, & nerve
It is best to first hold this slide up to the light or against a white background to get your bearings. The majority of dark blue tissue is bone. It surrounds numerous clear spaces, which represent portions of the external, middle, and inner ear (including cross-sections of the cochlea). Some of the spaces are the mastoid sinuses composed of mastoid air cells. Before putting the slide on the microscope, identify the cochlea. Some sections also have a tympanic membrane with attached malleus.
Identify the following structures:

  • External auditory canal. What type of epithelium is present?

  • Tympanic membrane separating external from middle ear.

  • Middle ear.

  • Surrounding bone and bone marrow.

  • Nerves.

  • Cochlea.

Recall that the cochlea is subdivided into 2 larger spaces (the scala vestibuli and the scala tympani) and a smaller central space (the scala media or cochlear duct).
The roughly triangular cochlear duct has one wall composed of the vestibular membrane, which is very thin and often artificially “broken” by processing methods, and one wall composed of the basilar membrane, which is fairly thick, “glassy”, and stains violet. The scala vestibuli is the space above the vestibular membrane; the scala tympani is the space below the basilar membrane. What are each of these spaces filled with?

Move to higher magnification and examine the basilar membrane and the components of the organ of Corti. The tectorial membrane is often easy to locate as a glassy violet membrane. Underlying it, try to identify hair cells and supporting cells (they may be a squashed cells). Note red nerve fibers (from what nerve?) exiting from the basilar membrane on the medial side. Identify the red cell bodies of the adjacent spiral ganglion. Identify the lateral wall of the cochlear duct. You may be able to determine that it is covered with columnar epithelium overlying connective tissue and numerous capillaries. This is the stria vascularis.

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