The auditory sensory organ, the cochlea, not only detects but also generates sounds. Such sounds, otoacoustic emissions, are widely used for diagnosis of hearing disorders and to estimate cochlear nonlinearity. However, the fundamental question of how the otoacoustic emission exits the cochlea remains unanswered. In this study, emissions were provoked by two tones with a constant frequency ratio, and measured as vibrations at the basilar membrane and at the stapes, and as sound pressure in the ear canal. The propagation direction and delay of the emission were determined by measuring the phase difference between basilar membrane and stapes vibrations. These measurements show that cochlea-generated sound arrives at the stapes earlier than at the measured basilar membrane location. Data also show that basilar membrane vibration at the emission frequency is similar to that evoked by external tones. These results conflict with the backward-traveling-wave theory and suggest that at low and intermediate sound levels, the emission exits the cochlea predominantly through the cochlear fluids.
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