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J Physiol. 2011 Feb 15;589(Pt 4):843-53. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2010.197053. Epub 2010 Oct 11.

Adaptation of vestibular signals for self-motion perception.

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Neuroscience Research Australia, Barker Street, Randwick, NSW 2031, Australia.


A fundamental concern of the brain is to establish the spatial relationship between self and the world to allow purposeful action. Response adaptation to unvarying sensory stimuli is a common feature of neural processing, both peripherally and centrally. For the semicircular canals, peripheral adaptation of the canal-cupula system to constant angular-velocity stimuli dominates the picture and masks central adaptation. Here we ask whether galvanic vestibular stimulation circumvents peripheral adaptation and, if so, does it reveal central adaptive processes. Transmastoidal bipolar galvanic stimulation and platform rotation (20 deg s−1) were applied separately and held constant for 2 min while perceived rotation was measured by verbal report. During real rotation, the perception of turn decayed from the onset of constant velocity with a mean time constant of 15.8 s. During galvanic-evoked virtual rotation, the perception of rotation initially rose but then declined towards zero over a period of ∼100 s. For both stimuli, oppositely directed perceptions of similar amplitude were reported when stimulation ceased indicating signal adaptation at some level. From these data the time constants of three independent processes were estimated: (i) the peripheral canal-cupula adaptation with time constant 7.3 s, (ii) the central ‘velocity-storage' process that extends the afferent signal with time constant 7.7 s, and (iii) a long-term adaptation with time constant 75.9 s. The first two agree with previous data based on constant-velocity stimuli. The third component decayed with the profile of a real constant angular acceleration stimulus, showing that the galvanic stimulus signal bypasses the peripheral transformation so that the brainstem sees the galvanic signal as angular acceleration. An adaptive process involving both peripheral and central processes is indicated. Signals evoked by most natural movements will decay peripherally before adaptation can exert an appreciable effect, making a specific vestibular behavioural role unlikely. This adaptation appears to be a general property of the internal coding of self-motion that receives information from multiple sensory sources and filters out the unvarying components regardless of their origin. In this instance of a pure vestibular sensation, it defines the afferent signal that represents the stationary or zero-rotation state.

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