The peripheral hearing system contains several motor mechanisms that allow the brain to modify the auditory transduction process. Movements or tensioning of either the middle ear muscles or the outer hair cells modifies eardrum motion, producing sounds that can be detected by a microphone placed in the ear canal (e.g., as otoacoustic emissions). Here, we report a form of eardrum motion produced by the brain via these systems: oscillations synchronized with and covarying with the direction and amplitude of saccades. These observations suggest that a vision-related process modulates the first stage of hearing. In particular, these eye movement-related eardrum oscillations may help the brain connect sights and sounds despite changes in the spatial relationship between the eyes and the ears.Abstract
Interactions between sensory pathways such as the visual and auditory systems are known to occur in the brain, but where they first occur is uncertain. Here, we show a multimodal interaction evident at the eardrum. Ear canal microphone measurements in humans (n = 19 ears in 16 subjects) and monkeys (n = 5 ears in three subjects) performing a saccadic eye movement task to visual targets indicated that the eardrum moves in conjunction with the eye movement. The eardrum motion was oscillatory and began as early as 10 ms before saccade onset in humans or with saccade onset in monkeys. These eardrum movements, which we dub eye movement-related eardrum oscillations (EMREOs), occurred in the absence of a sound stimulus. The amplitude and phase of the EMREOs depended on the direction and horizontal amplitude of the saccade. They lasted throughout the saccade and well into subsequent periods of steady fixation. We discuss the possibility that the mechanisms underlying EMREOs create eye movement-related binaural cues that may aid the brain in evaluating the relationship between visual and auditory stimulus locations as the eyes move.