To determine the critical time of responsiveness of developing otolith organ-related brainstem neurons and their distribution, Fos protein expression in response to off-vertical axis rotations (OVAR) was mapped in conscious Sprague Dawley rats from P5 to adulthood. OVAR was used to activate sequentially all utricular hair cells per 360 degrees revolution. We detected the coding of horizontal head positions in otolith organ-related neurons within the vestibular nucleus as early as P7. In the vestibular nuclear complex and its subgroups, the density of Fos-immunoreactive (Fos-ir) neurons increased steadily with age and reached the adult level by P21. In both labyrinthectomized rats subjected to OVAR and normal rats kept stationary, labeled neurons were found sporadically in the aforementioned brain regions in each age group, confirming that Fos labeling observed in neurons of normal experimental rats subjected to OVAR was due to otolith organ stimulation. Whereas OVAR-induced Fos-ir neurons were also first observed in vestibular-related brain areas, such as the prepositus hypoglossal nucleus, gigantocellular reticular nucleus, and locus coeruleus, of normal experimental rats at P7, those in the inferior olive were observed only from P14 onward. This indicates the unique maturation time of inferior olivary neurons in gravity-related spatial coding. In general, age-dependent increase in OVAR-induced Fos-ir neurons was observed in brain areas that received otolith inputs. The locus coeruleus was exceptional in that prominent OVAR-induced Fos-ir neuronal number did not change with maturation, and this was well above the low but significant number of Fos-ir neurons in control preparations. Taken together, our results suggest that neuronal subpopulations within the developing network of the horizontal otolith system provide an anatomical basis for the postnatal development of otolith organ-related sensorimotor functions. J. Comp. Neurol. 470:282-296, 2004.
Copyright 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.