Computation of inertial motion: Neural strategies to resolve ambiguous otolith information

Dora E. Angelaki, M. Quinn McHenry, J. David Dickman, Shawn D. Newlands, Bernhard J.M. Hess

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


According to Einstein's equivalence principle, inertial accelerations during translational motion are physically indistinguishable from gravitational accelerations experienced during tilting movements. Nevertheless, despite ambiguous sensory representation of motion in primary otolith afferents, primate oculomotor responses are appropriately compensatory for the correct translational component of the head movement. The neural computational strategies used by the brain to discriminate the two and to reliably detect translational motion were investigated in the primate vestibule-ocular system. The experimental protocols consisted of either lateral translations, roll tilts, or combined translation-tilt paradigms. Results using both steady-state sinusoidal and transient motion profiles in darkness or near target viewing demonstrated that semicircular canal signals are necessary sensory cues for the discrimination between different sources of linear acceleration. When the semicircular canals were inactivated, horizontal eye movements (appropriate for translational motion) could no longer be correlated with head translation. Instead, translational eye movements totally reflected the erroneous primary otolith afferent signals and were correlated with the resultant acceleration, regardless of whether it resulted from translation or tilt. Therefore, at least for frequencies in which the vestibule-ocular reflex is important for gaze stabilization (>0.1 Hz), the oculomotor system discriminates between head translation and tilt primarily by sensory integration mechanisms rather than frequency segregation of otolith afferent information. Nonlinear neural computational schemes are proposed in which not only linear acceleration information from the otolith receptors but also angular velocity signals from the semicircular canals are simultaneously used by the brain to correctly estimate the source of linear acceleration and to elicit appropriate oculomotor responses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)316-327
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 1999


  • Eye movements
  • Gravity
  • Inertial
  • Navigation
  • Neural computation
  • Oculomotor
  • Vestibular

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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