The vestibular system is our sixth sense and is important for spatial perception functions, yet the sensory detection and discrimination properties of vestibular neurons remain relatively unexplored. Herewehave used signal detection theory to measure detection thresholds of otolith afferents using 1 Hz linear accelerations delivered along three cardinal axes. Direction detection thresholds were measured by comparing mean firing rates centered on response peak and trough (full-cycle thresholds) or by comparing peak/trough firing rates with spontaneous activity (half-cycle thresholds). Thresholds were similar for utricular and saccular afferents, as well as for lateral, fore/aft, and vertical motion directions.Whencomputed along the preferred direction, full-cycle direction detection thresholds were 7.54 and 3.01 cm/s2 for regular and irregular firing otolith afferents, respectively. Half-cycle thresholds were approximately double, with excitatory thresholds being half as large as inhibitory thresholds. The variability in threshold among afferents was directly related to neuronal gain and did not depend on spike count variance. The exact threshold values depended on both the time window used for spike count analysis and the filtering method used to calculate mean firing rate, although differences between regular and irregular afferent thresholds were independent of analysis parameters. The fact that minimum thresholds measured in macaque otolith afferents are of the same order of magnitude as human behavioral thresholds suggests that the vestibular periphery might determine the limit on our ability to detect or discriminate small differences in head movement, with little noise added during downstream processing.
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