Gravity dependence of subjective visual vertical variability

J Neurophysiol. 2009 Sep;102(3):1657-71. doi: 10.1152/jn.00007.2008. Epub 2009 Jul 1.


The brain integrates sensory input from the otolith organs, the semicircular canals, and the somatosensory and visual systems to determine self-orientation relative to gravity. Only the otoliths directly sense the gravito-inertial force vector and therefore provide the major input for perceiving static head-roll relative to gravity, as measured by the subjective visual vertical (SVV). Intraindividual SVV variability increases with head roll, which suggests that the effectiveness of the otolith signal is roll-angle dependent. We asked whether SVV variability reflects the spatial distribution of the otolithic sensors and the otolith-derived acceleration estimate. Subjects were placed in different roll orientations (0-360 degrees, 15 degrees steps) and asked to align an arrow with perceived vertical. Variability was minimal in upright, increased with head-roll peaking around 120-135 degrees, and decreased to intermediate values at 180 degrees. Otolith-dependent variability was modeled by taking into consideration the nonuniform distribution of the otolith afferents and their nonlinear firing rate. The otolith-derived estimate was combined with an internal bias shifting the estimated gravity-vector toward the body-longitudinal. Assuming an efficient otolith estimator at all roll angles, peak variability of the model matched our data; however, modeled variability in upside-down and upright positions was very similar, which is at odds with our findings. By decreasing the effectiveness of the otolith estimator with increasing roll, simulated variability matched our experimental findings better. We suggest that modulations of SVV precision in the roll plane are related to the properties of the otolith sensors and to central computational mechanisms that are not optimally tuned for roll-angles distant from upright.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Adult
  • Eye Movements / physiology*
  • Female
  • Gravitation*
  • Gravity Sensing / physiology
  • Head Movements / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Biological
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Otolithic Membrane / physiology
  • Psychophysics
  • Space Perception / physiology*