2-Minute Neuroscience: Vestibular System


Welcome to 2 minute neuroscience, where I
simplistically explain neuroscience topics in 2 minutes or less. In this installment I will discuss the vestibular
system. The vestibular system is a sensory system
responsible for providing our brain with information about motion, head position, and spatial orientation;
it also is involved with motor functions that allow us to keep our balance, stabilize our
head and body during movement, and maintain posture. The main components of the vestibular system
are found in the inner ear in a system of compartments called the vestibular labyrinth,
which is continuous with the cochlea. The vestibular labyrinth contains the semicircular
canals which are three tubes that are each situated in a plane in which the head can
rotate. Each of the canals can detect one of the following
head movements: nodding up and down, shaking side to side, or tilting left and right. The semicircular canals are filled with a
fluid called endolymph. When the head is rotated, it causes the movement
of endolymph through the canal that corresponds to the plane of the movement. The endolymph flows into an expansion of the
canal called the ampulla, within which there are hair cells, the sensory receptors of the
vestibular system. At the top of each hair cell is a collection
of small “hairs” called stereocilia. The movement of the endolymph causes movement
of these stereocilia, which leads to the the release of neurotransmitters to send information
about the plane of movement to the brain. The vestibular system uses two other organs,
known as the otolith organs, to detect forward and backward movements and gravitational forces. There are two otolith organs in the vestibular
labyrinth: the utricle, which detects movement in the horizontal plane, and the saccule,
which detects movement in the vertical plane. Within the utricle and saccule, hair cells
detect movement when crystals of calcium carbonate called otoconia shift in response to it, leading
to movement in the layers below the otoconia and displacement of hair cells.

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