Quasi-elastic neutron scattering (QENS) was employed to study the molecular dynamics of three structurally related sterols, namely, cholesterol, lanosterol, and ergosterol. Oriented bilayers of dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine (DPPC) were investigated at 40 mol % sterol content and at three temperatures (20, 36, and 50 degrees C) for two energy resolutions. Data analysis was concentrated on a direct comparison of the out-of-plane and the in-plane high-frequency motions of the three sterols in terms of their rates and amplitudes. The (spatially restricted) diffusive motion of the three sterols in the two directions was characterized by diffusion constants in the range of (5-30) x 10(-12) x m(2) x s(-1), with a significantly faster rate of diffusion along the membrane normal, resulting in a diffusional anisotropy, D(a). At low temperature (20 degrees C), cholesterol showed the highest value (D(a) = 4.5), while lanosterol gave the lowest one (D(a) = 2.0). At high temperature (50 degrees C), ergosterol diffusion had the highest diffusion anisotropy (D(a) = 2.0) compared to lanosterol (D(a) = 1.8) and cholesterol (D(a) = 1.6). Most interestingly, cholesterol showed at all three temperatures an amplitude of its out-of-plane-motion of 1.0-1.1 nm, more than a factor of 3 higher than measured for the other two sterols. This finding suggests that the short alkyl chain of the cholesterol molecule may cross at high frequency the bilayer midplane, while the other two sterols remain confined within the geometrical limits of each monolayer leaflet. The results provide an example of how slight structural alterations of sterols can affect their molecular dynamics in bilayers, which in turn may be relevant to the membrane micromechanical properties.