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Curr Biol. 2006 Aug 8;16(15):1509-14.

Resolving head rotation for human bipedalism.

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  • 1Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute and University of New South Wales, Sydney 2031, Australia. r.fitzpatrick@unsw.edu.au

Abstract

Alignment of the body to the gravitational vertical is considered to be the key to human bipedalism. However, changes to the semicircular canals during human evolution suggest that the sense of head rotation that they provide is important for modern human bipedal locomotion. When walking, the canals signal a mix of head rotations associated with path turns, balance perturbations, and other body movements. It is uncertain how the brain uses this information. Here, we show dual roles for the semicircular canals in balance control and navigation control. We electrically evoke a head-fixed virtual rotation signal from semicircular canal nerves as subjects walk in the dark with their head held in different orientations. Depending on head orientation, we can either steer walking by "remote control" or produce balance disturbances. This shows that the brain resolves the canal signal according to head posture into Earth-referenced orthogonal components and uses rotations in vertical planes to control balance and rotations in the horizontal plane to navigate. Because the semicircular canals are concerned with movement rather than detecting vertical alignment, this result shows the importance of movement control and agility rather than precise vertical alignment of the body for human bipedalism.

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