Sensory Systems/Vestibular Anatomy

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Anatomy of the Vestibular System[edit]


Together with the cochlea, the vestibular system is carried by a system of tubes called the membranous labyrinth. These tubes are lodged within the cavities of the bony labyrinth located in the inner ear. A fluid called perilymph fills the space between the bone and the membranous labyrinth, while another one called endolymph fills the inside of the tubes spanned by the membranous labyrinth. These fluids have a unique ionic composition suited to their function in regulating the electrochemical potential of hair cells, which are as we will later see the transducers of the vestibular system. The electric potential of endolymph is of about 80 mV more positive than perilymph.

Since our movements consist of a combination of linear translations and rotations, the vestibular system is composed of two main parts: The otolith organs, which sense linear accelerations and thereby also give us information about the head’s position relative to gravity, and the semicircular canals, which sense angular accelerations.

Human bony labyrinth (Computed tomography 3D) Internal structure of the human labyrinth
Canaux osseux.png VestibularSystem.gif


The otolith organs of both ears are located in two membranous sacs called the utricle and the saccule which primary sense horizontal and vertical accelerations, respectively. Each utricle has about 30'000 hair cells, and each saccule about 16'000. The otoliths are located at the central part of the labyrinth, also called the vestibule of the ear. Both utricle and saccule have a thickened portion of the membrane called the macula. A gelatinous membrane called the otolthic membrane sits atop the macula, and microscopic stones made of calcium carbonate crystal, the otoliths, are embedded on the surface of this membrane. On the opposite side, hair cells embedded in supporting cells project into this membrane.

The otoliths are the human sensory organs for linear acceleration. The utricle (left) is approximately horizontally oriented; the saccule (center) lies approximately vertical. The arrows indicate the local on-directions of the hair cells; and the thick black lines indicate the location of the striola. On the right you see a cross-section through the otolith membrane. The graphs have been generated by Rudi Jaeger, while we cooperated on investigations of the otolith dynamics.

Semicircular Canals[edit]

Cross-section through ampulla. Top: The cupula spans the lumen of the ampulla from the crista to the membranous labyrinth. Bottom: Since head acceleration exceeds endolymph acceleration, the relative flow of endolymph in the canal is opposite to the direction of head acceleration. This flow produces a pressure across the elastic cupula, which deflects in response.

Each ear has three semicircular canals. They are half circular, interconnected membranous tubes filled with endolymph and can sense angular accelerations in the three orthogonal planes. The radius of curvature of the human horizontal semicircular canal is 3.2 mm [1].

The canals on each side are approximately orthogonal to each other. The orientation of the on-directions of the canals on the right side are [2]:

Canal X Y Z
Horizontal 0.32269 -0.03837 -0.94573
Anterior 0.58930 0.78839 0.17655
Posterior 0.69432 -0.66693 0.27042

(The axes are oriented such that the positive x-,y-,and z-axis point forward, left, and up, respectively. The horizontal plane is defined by Reid's line, the line connecting the lower rim of the orbita and the center of the external auditory canal. And the directions are such that a rotation about that vector, according to the right-hand-rule, excites the corresponding canal.) The anterior and posterior semicircular canals are approximately vertical, and the horizontal semicircular canals approximately horizontal.

Orientation of the semicircular canals in the vestibular system. "L / R" stand for "Left / Right", respectively, and "H / A / P" for "Horizontal / Anterior / Posterior". The arrows indicate the direction of head movement that stimulates the corresponding canal.

Each canal presents a dilatation at one end, called the ampulla. Each membranous ampulla contains a saddle-shaped ridge of tissue, the crista, which extends across it from side to side. It is covered by neuroepithelium, with hair cells and supporting cells. From this ridge rises a gelatinous structure, the cupula, which extends to the roof of the ampulla immediately above it, dividing the interior of the ampulla into two approximately equal parts.


The sensors within both the otolith organs and the semicircular canals are the hair cells. They are responsible for the transduction of a mechanical force into an electrical signal and thereby build the interface between the world of accelerations and the brain.

Transduction mechanism in auditory or vestibular haircell. Tilting the haircell towards the kinocilium opens the potassium ion channels. This changes the receptor potential in the haircell. The resulting emission of neurotransmittors can elicit an action potential (AP) in the post-synaptic cell.

Hair cells have a tuft of stereocilia that project from their apical surface. The thickest and longest stereocilia is the kinocilium. Stereocilia deflection is the mechanism by which all hair cells transduce mechanical forces. Stereocilia within a bundle are linked to one another by protein strands, called tip links, which span from the side of a taller stereocilium to the tip of its shorter neighbor in the array. Under deflection of the bundle, the tip links act as gating springs to open and close mechanically sensitive ion channels. Afferent nerve excitation works basically the following way: when all cilia are deflected toward the kinocilium, the gates open and cations, including potassium ions from the potassium rich endolymph, flow in and the membrane potential of the hair cell becomes more positive (depolarization). The hair cell itself does not fire action potentials. The depolarization activates voltage-sensitive calcium channels at the basolateral aspect of the cell. Calcium ions then flow in and trigger the release of neurotransmitters, mainly glutamate, which in turn diffuse across the narrow space between the hair cell and a nerve terminal, where they then bind to receptors and thus trigger an increase of the action potentials firing rate in the nerve. On the other hand, afferent nerve inhibition is the process induced by the bending of the stereocilia away from the kinocilium (hyperpolarization) and by which the firing rate is decreased. Because the hair cells are chronically leaking calcium, the vestibular afferent nerve fires actively at rest and thereby allows the sensing of both directions (increase and decrease of firing rate). Hair cells are very sensitive and respond extremely quickly to stimuli. The quickness of hair cell response may in part be due to the fact that they must be able to release neurotransmitter reliably in response to a threshold receptor potential of only 100 µV or so.

Auditory haircells are very similar to those of the vestibular system. Here an electron microscopy image of a frog's sacculus haircell.

Regular and Irregular Haircells[edit]

While afferent haircells in the auditory system are fairly homogeneous,those in the vestibular system can be broadly separated into two groups: "regular units" and "irregular units". Regular haircells have approximately constant interspike intervals, and fire constantly proportional to their displacement. In contrast, the inter-spike interval of irregular haircells is much more variable, and their discharge rate increases with increasing frequency; they can thus act as event detectors at high frequencies. Regular and irregular haircells also differ in their location, morphology and innervation.

  1. Curthoys IS and Oman CM (1987). "Dimensions of the horizontal semicircular duct, ampulla and utricle in the human.". Acta Otolaryngol 103: 254–261. 
  2. Della Santina CC, Potyagaylo V, Migliaccio A, Minor LB, Carey JB (2005). "Orientation of Human Semicircular Canals Measured by Three-Dimensional Multi-planar CT Reconstruction.". J Assoc Res Otolaryngol 6(3): 191-206.