Donata Oertel

Program / Dept 1
Program / Dept 2
Short Research Description

Hearing is so effortless and most of us do not realize how remarkable it is. Consider the following: with your eyes closed, we can determine the location of a sound source to within 1 degree in the horizontal plane. We can distinguish the difference in pitch between tones of 1000 cycles/sec and 1001 cycles/sec. We can have a conversation even at a party where lots of people talk and music blares. We can listen to sounds all day long without fatigue. Natural sounds usually contain energy at many frequencies that are multiples of one another (overtones) and that activate differing groups of auditory nerve fibers yet we perceive them as one sound. Those overtones enable us to distinguish one person's voice from another, and the difference between a flute and violin that play at the same pitch. We are trying to understand how circuits of neurons make sense of sounds. Several different types of neurons in the cochlear nuclei are contacted by auditory nerve fibers so each can be doing its job quickly and simultaneously, which is important because sounds are constantly changing. Some of these neurons fire with every cycle of the sound, enabling the brain to reconstruct the frequency of sound and also to compare the timing of the arrival of sounds at the two ears. Other neurons construct an ongoing picture of the spectrum of sounds. Still others sense the presence of onsets that signal when a sound starts.

Membership in other UW Grad Training Programs
Physiology Graduate Training Program, Neuroscience Training Program
Undergrad Major:
Grad Major:
Biological Sciences
Hearing is fragile and once lost cannot be replaced. Genetic mutations, loud noise, meningitis, some kinds of antibiotics, and some chemotherapeutic agents cause people to lose some or all hearing. Hearing loss means that you don't know what people around you are saying and thinking, that you cannot follow conversations in a crowd, and that you cannot speak on the telephone. That social isolation is difficult to bear.