We propose a new mechanism for outer hair cell electromotility based on electrically induced localized changes in the curvature of the plasma membrane (flexoelectricity). Electromechanical coupling in the cell's lateral wall is modeled in terms of linear constitutive equations for a flexoelectric membrane and then extended to nonlinear coupling based on the Langevin function. The Langevin function, which describes the fraction of dipoles aligned with an applied electric field, is shown to be capable of predicting the electromotility voltage displacement function. We calculate the electrical and mechanical contributions to the force balance and show that the model is consistent with experimentally measured values for electromechanical properties. The model rationalizes several experimental observations associated with outer hair cell electromotility and provides for constant surface area of the plasma membrane. The model accounts for the isometric force generated by the cell and explains the observation that the disruption of spectrin by diamide reduces force generation in the cell. We discuss the relation of this mechanism to other proposed models of outer hair cell electromotility. Our analysis suggests that rotation of membrane dipoles and the accompanying mechanical deformation may be the molecular mechanism of electromotility.
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