Probing the human vestibular system with galvanic stimulation

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2004 Jun;96(6):2301-16. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00008.2004.


Galvanic vestibular stimulation (GVS) is a simple, safe, and specific way to elicit vestibular reflexes. Yet, despite a long history, it has only recently found popularity as a research tool and is rarely used clinically. The obstacle to advancing and exploiting GVS is that we cannot interpret the evoked responses with certainty because we do not understand how the stimulus acts as an input to the system. This paper examines the electrophysiology and anatomy of the vestibular organs and the effects of GVS on human balance control and develops a model that explains the observed balance responses. These responses are large and highly organized over all body segments and adapt to postural and balance requirements. To achieve this, neurons in the vestibular nuclei receive convergent signals from all vestibular receptors and somatosensory and cortical inputs. GVS sway responses are affected by other sources of information about balance but can appear as the sum of otolithic and semicircular canal responses. Electrophysiological studies showing similar activation of primary afferents from the otolith organs and canals and their convergence in the vestibular nuclei support this. On the basis of the morphology of the cristae and the alignment of the semicircular canals in the skull, rotational vectors calculated for every mode of GVS agree with the observed sway. However, vector summation of signals from all utricular afferents does not explain the observed sway. Thus we propose the hypothesis that the otolithic component of the balance response originates from only the pars medialis of the utricular macula.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / physiology
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Humans
  • Kinetics
  • Models, Neurological
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Otolithic Membrane / anatomy & histology
  • Otolithic Membrane / physiology
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Proprioception / physiology
  • Semicircular Canals / anatomy & histology
  • Semicircular Canals / physiology
  • Vestibular Nuclei / anatomy & histology
  • Vestibular Nuclei / physiology*