Pregnant rats were flown on the NASA Space Shuttle during the early developmental period of their fetuses' vestibular apparatus and onset of vestibular function. The authors report that prenatal spaceflight exposure shapes vestibular-mediated behavior and central morphology. Postflight testing revealed (a) delayed onset of body righting responses, (b) cardiac deceleration (bradycardia) to 70 degrees head-up roll, (c) decreased branching of gravistatic afferent axons, but (d) no change in branching of angular acceleration receptor projections with comparable synaptogenesis of the medial vestibular nucleus in flight relative to control fetuses. Kinematic analyses of the dams' on-orbit behavior suggest that, although the fetal otolith organs are unloaded in microgravity, the fetus' semicircular canals receive high levels of stimulation during longitudinal rotations of the mother's weightless body. Behaviorally derived stimulation from maternal movements may be a significant factor in studies of vestibular sensory development. Taken together, these studies provide evidence that gravity and angular acceleration shape prenatal organization and function within the mammalian vestibular system.
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