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The vestibular system, which contributes to balance in most mammals and to the sense of spatial orientation, is the sensory system that provides the leading contribution about movement and sense of balance. Together with the cochlea, a part of the auditory system, it constitutes the labyrinth of the inner ear in most mammals, situated in the vestibulum in the inner ear (Figure 1). As movements consist of rotations and translations, the vestibular system comprises two components: the semicircular canal system, which indicate rotational movements; and the otoliths, which indicate linear accelerations. The vestibular system sends signals primarily to the neural structures that control eye movements, and to the muscles that keep a creature upright. The projections to the former provide the anatomical basis of the vestibulo-ocular reflex, which is required for clear vision; and the projections to the muscles that control posture are necessary to keep a creature upright.
The brain uses information from the vestibular system in the head and from proprioception throughout the body to understand the body's dynamics and kinematics (including its position and acceleration) from moment to moment.
The semicircular canal system detects rotational movements. The semicircular canals are its main tools to achieve this detection.
Since the world is three-dimensional, the vestibular system contains three semicircular canals in each labyrinth. They are approximately orthogonal (right angles) to each other, and are called the horizontal (or lateral), the anterior semicircular canal (or superior) and the posterior (or inferior) semicircular canal. Anterior and posterior canals may be collectively called vertical semicircular canals.
The canals are arranged in such a way that each canal on the left side has an almost parallel counterpart on the right side. Each of these three pairs works in a push-pull fashion: when one canal is stimulated, its corresponding partner on the other side is inhibited, and vice versa.
This push-pull system makes it possible to sense all directions of rotation: while the right horizontal canal gets stimulated during head rotations to the right (Fig 2), the left horizontal canal gets stimulated (and thus predominantly signals) by head rotations to the left.
Vertical canals are coupled in a crossed fashion, i.e. stimulations that are excitatory for an anterior canal are also inhibitory for the contralateral posterior, and vice versa.
The vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR) is a reflex eye movement that stabilizes images on the retina during head movement by producing an eye movement in the direction opposite to head movement, thus preserving the image on the center of the visual field. For example, when the head moves to the right, the eyes move to the left, and vice versa. Since slight head movements are present all the time, the VOR is very important for stabilizing vision: patients whose VOR is impaired find it difficult to read, because they cannot stabilize the eyes during small head tremors. The VOR reflex does not depend on visual input and works even in total darkness or when the eyes are closed.
This reflex, combined with the push-pull principle described above, forms the physiological basis of the Rapid head impulse test or Halmagyi-Curthoys-test, in which the head is rapidly and forcefully moved to the side, while observing whether the eyes keep looking in the same direction.
The mechanics of the semicircular canals can be described by a damped oscillator. If we designate the deflection of the cupula with , and the head velocity with , the cupula deflection is approximately
α is a proportionality factor, and s corresponds to the frequency. For humans, the time constants T1 and T2 are approximately 3 ms and 5 s, respectively. As a result, for typical head movements, which cover the frequency range of 0.1 Hz and 10 Hz, the deflection of the cupula is approximately proportional to the head-velocity. This is very useful, since the velocity of the eyes must be opposite to the velocity of the head in order to have clear vision.
Signals from the vestibular system also project to the cerebellum (where they are used to keep the VOR effective, a task usually referred to as learning or adaptation) and to different areas in the cortex. The projections to the cortex are spread out over different areas, and their implications are currently not clearly understood.
The vestibular nuclei on either sides of the brain stem exchange signals regarding movement and body position. These signals are sent down the following projection pathways.
While the semicircular canals respond to rotations, the otolithic organs sense linear accelerations. Humans have two on each side, one called utricle, the other saccule. The otoconia crystals in the otoconia layer rest on a viscous gel layer, and are heavier than their surroundings. Therefore they get displaced during linear acceleration, which in turn deflects the ciliary bundles of the hair cells and thus produces a sensory signal. Most of the utricular signals elicit eye movements, while the majority of the saccular signals projects to muscles that control our posture. While the interpretation of the rotation signals from the semicircular canals is straightforward, the interpretation of otolith signals is more difficult: since gravity is equivalent to a constant linear acceleration, one somehow has to distinguish otolith signals that are caused by linear movements from such that are caused by gravity. Humans can do that quite well, but the neural mechanisms underlying this separation are not yet fully understood. Humans can sense head tilting and linear acceleration even in dark environments because of the orientation of two groups of hair cell bundles on either side of the striola. Hair cells on opposite sides move with mirror symmetry, so when one side is moved, the other is inhibited. The opposing effects caused by a tilt of the head, causing differential sensory inputs from the hair cell bundles allow humans to tell which way the head is tilting, Sensory information is then sent to the brain, which can respond with appropriate corrective actions to the nervous and muscular systems to ensure that balance and awareness are maintained.
Experience from the vestibular system is called equilibrioception. It is mainly used for the sense of balance and for spatial orientation. When the vestibular system is stimulated without any other inputs, one experiences a sense of self-motion. For example, a person in complete darkness and sitting in a chair will feel that he or she has turned to the left if the chair is turned to the left. A person in an elevator, with essentially constant visual input, will feel she is descending as the elevator starts to descend. Although the vestibular system is a very fast sense used to generate reflexes to maintain perceptual and postural stability, compared to the other senses of vision, touch and audition, vestibular input is perceived with delay.
Diseases of the vestibular system can take different forms, and usually induce vertigo and instability or loss of balance, often accompanied by nausea. The most common vestibular diseases in humans are Vestibular neuritis, a related condition called Labyrinthitis, Ménière's disease, and BPPV. In addition, the function of the vestibular system can be affected by tumors on the vestibulocochlear nerve, an infarct in the brain stem or in cortical regions related to the processing of vestibular signals, and cerebellar atrophy.
Alcohol can also cause alterations in the vestibular system for short periods of time and will result in vertigo and possibly nystagmus. This is due to the variable viscosity of the blood and the endolymph during the consumption of alcohol. The common term for this type of sensation is the "Bed Spins".
It is interesting to note that PAN I will result in subjective vertigo in one direction and typically occurs shortly after ingestion of alcohol when blood alcohol levels are highest. PAN II will eventually cause subjective vertigo in the opposite direction. This occurs several hours after ingestion and after a relative reduction in blood alcohol levels.
Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, or BPPV for short, is a condition resulting in acute symptoms of vertigo in people. It is probably caused when pieces that have broken off otoliths have slipped into one of the semicircular canals. In most cases it is the posterior canal that is affected. In certain head positions, these particles shift and create a fluid wave which displaces the cupula of the canal affected, which leads to dizziness, vertigo and nystagmus.
A similar condition to BPPV may occur in dogs and other mammals, but the term "vertigo" cannot be applied because it refers to subjective perception. Terminology is not standardized for this condition.
A common vestibular pathology of dogs and cats is colloquially known as "Old Dog Vestibular Disease," or more formally idiopathic peripheral vestibular disease, which causes sudden episode of loss of balance, circling, head tilt, and other signs. This condition is very rare in young dogs but fairly common in geriatric animals, and may affect cats of any age.