Effective navigation and locomotion depend critically on an observer's ability to judge direction of linear self-motion, i.e., heading. The vestibular cue to heading is the direction of inertial acceleration that accompanies transient linear movements. This cue is transduced by the otolith organs. The otoliths also respond to gravitational acceleration, so vestibular heading discrimination could depend on (1) the direction of movement in head coordinates (i.e., relative to the otoliths), (2) the direction of movement in world coordinates (i.e., relative to gravity), or (3) body orientation (i.e., the direction of gravity relative to the otoliths). To quantify these effects, we measured vestibular and visual discrimination of heading along azimuth and elevation dimensions with observers oriented both upright and side-down relative to gravity. We compared vestibular heading thresholds with corresponding measurements of sensitivity to linear motion along lateral and vertical axes of the head (coarse direction discrimination and amplitude discrimination). Neither heading nor coarse direction thresholds depended on movement direction in world coordinates, demonstrating that the nervous system compensates for gravity. Instead, they depended similarly on movement direction in head coordinates (better performance in the horizontal plane) and on body orientation (better performance in the upright orientation). Heading thresholds were correlated with, but significantly larger than, predictions based on sensitivity in the coarse discrimination task. Simulations of a neuron/anti-neuron pair with idealized cosine-tuning properties show that heading thresholds larger than those predicted from coarse direction discrimination could be accounted for by an amplitude-response nonlinearity in the neural representation of inertial motion.
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