Sensory signal convergence is a fundamental and important aspect of brain function. Such convergence may often involve complex multidimensional interactions as those proposed for the processing of otolith and semicircular canal (SCC) information for the detection of translational head movements and the effective discrimination from physically congruent gravity signals. In the present study, we have examined the responses of primate rostral vestibular nuclei (VN) neurons that do not exhibit any eye movement-related activity using 0.5-Hz translational. and three-dimensional (3D) rotational motion. Three distinct neural populations were identified. Approximately one-fourth of the cells exclusively encoded rotational movements (canal-only neurons) and were unresponsive to translation. The canal-only central neurons encoded head rotation in SCC coordinates, exhibited little orthogonal canal convergence, and were characterized with significantly higher sensitivities to rotation as compared to primary SCC afferents. Another fourth of the neurons modulated their firing rates during translation (otolith-only cells). During rotations, these neurons only responded when the axis of rotation was earth-horizontal and the head was changing orientation relative to gravity. The remaining one-half of VN neurons were sensitive to both rotations and translations (otolith + canal neurons). Unlike primary otolith afferents, however, central neurons often exhibited significant spatiotemporal (noncosine) tuning properties and a wide variety of response dynamics to translation. To characterize the pattern of SCC inputs to otolith + canal neurons, their rotational maximum sensitivity vectors were computed using exclusively responses during earth-vertical axis rotations (EVA). Maximum sensitivity vectors were distributed throughout the 3D space, suggesting strong convergence from multiple SCCs. These neurons were also tested with earth-horizontal axis rotations (EHA), which would activate both vertical canals and otolith organs. However, the recorded responses could not be predicted from a linear combination of EVA rotational and translational responses. In contrast, one-third of the neurons responded similarly during EVA and EHA rotations, although a significant response modulation was present during translation. Thus this subpopulation of otolith + canal cells, which included neurons with either high- or low-pass dynamics to translation, appear to selectively ignore the component of otolith-selective activation that is due to changes in the orientation of the head relative to gravity. Thus contrary to primary otolith afferents and otolith-only central neurons that respond equivalently to tilts relative to gravity and translational movements, approximately one-third of the otolith + canal cells seem to encode a true estimate of the translational component of the imposed passive head and body movement.
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