Vestibular system: the many facets of a multimodal sense

Annu Rev Neurosci. 2008;31:125-50. doi: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.31.060407.125555.


Elegant sensory structures in the inner ear have evolved to measure head motion. These vestibular receptors consist of highly conserved semicircular canals and otolith organs. Unlike other senses, vestibular information in the central nervous system becomes immediately multisensory and multimodal. There is no overt, readily recognizable conscious sensation from these organs, yet vestibular signals contribute to a surprising range of brain functions, from the most automatic reflexes to spatial perception and motor coordination. Critical to these diverse, multimodal functions are multiple computationally intriguing levels of processing. For example, the need for multisensory integration necessitates vestibular representations in multiple reference frames. Proprioceptive-vestibular interactions, coupled with corollary discharge of a motor plan, allow the brain to distinguish actively generated from passive head movements. Finally, nonlinear interactions between otolith and canal signals allow the vestibular system to function as an inertial sensor and contribute critically to both navigation and spatial orientation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Head Movements / physiology
  • Humans
  • Motion Perception / physiology
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Postural Balance / physiology*
  • Proprioception / physiology
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Vestibule, Labyrinth / physiology*