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Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001.

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Neuroscience. 2nd edition.

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The Semicircular Canals

Whereas the otolith organs are primarily concerned with translational movements, the semicircular canals sense head rotations, arising either from self-induced movements or from angular accelerations of the head imparted by external forces. Each of the three semicircular canals has at its base a bulbous expansion called the ampulla (Figure 14.7), which houses the sensory epithelium, or crista, that contains the hair cells. The structure of the canals suggests how they detect the angular accelerations that arise through rotation of the head. The hair bundles extend out of the crista into a gelatinous mass, the cupula, that bridges the width of the ampulla, forming a fluid barrier through which endolymph cannot circulate. As a result, the compliant cupula is distorted by movements of the endolymphatic fluid. When the head turns in the plane of one of the semicircular canals, the inertia of the endolymph produces a force across the cupula, distending it away from the direction of head movement and causing a displacement of the hair bundles within the crista (Figure 14.8A,B). In contrast, linear accelerations of the head produce equal forces on the two sides of the cupula, so the hair bundles are not displaced.

Figure 14.7. The ampulla of the posterior semicircular canal showing the crista, hair bundles, and cupula.

Figure 14.7

The ampulla of the posterior semicircular canal showing the crista, hair bundles, and cupula. The cupula is distorted by the fluid in the membranous canal when the head rotates.

Figure 14.8. Functional organization of the semicircular canals.

Figure 14.8

Functional organization of the semicircular canals. (A) The position of the cupula without angular acceleration. (B) Distortion of the cupula during angular acceleration. When the head is rotated in the plane of the canal (arrow outside canal), the inertia (more...)

Unlike the saccular and utricular maculae, all of the hair cells in the crista within each semicircular canal are organized with their kinocilia pointing in the same direction (see Figure 14.2C). Thus, when the cupula moves in the appropriate direction, the entire population of hair cells is depolarized and activity in all of the innervating axons increases. When the cupula moves in the opposite direction, the population is hyperpolarized and neuronal activity decreases. Deflections orthogonal to the excitatory-inhibitory direction produce little or no response.

Each semicircular canal works in concert with a partner located on the other side of the head, which has its hair cells aligned oppositely. There are three such pairs: the two pairs of horizontal canals, and the superior canal on each side working with the posterior canal on the other side (Figure 14.8C). Head rotation deforms the cupula in opposing directions for the two partners, resulting in opposite changes in their firing rates (Box C). For example, the orientation of the horizontal canals makes them selectively sensitive to rotation in the horizontal plane. More specifically, the hair cells in the canal towards which the head is turning are depolarized, while those on the other side are hyperpolarized. For example, when the head turns to the left, the cupula is pushed toward the kinocilium in the left horizontal canal, and the firing rate of the relevant axons in the left vestibular nerve increases. In contrast, the cupula in the right horizontal canal is pushed away from the kinocilium, with a concomitant decrease in the firing rate of the related neurons. If the head movement is to the right, the result is just the opposite. This push-pull arrangement operates for all three pairs of canals; the pair whose activity is modulated is in the rotational plane, and the member of the pair whose activity is increased is on the side toward which the head is turning. The net result is a system that provides information about the rotation of the head in any direction.

Box Icon

Box C

Throwing Cold Water on the Vestibular System.

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By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2001, Sinauer Associates, Inc.
Bookshelf ID: NBK10863


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