Connecting ears to eye muscles: evolution of a 'simple' reflex arc

Brain Behav Evol. 2014;83(2):162-75. doi: 10.1159/000357833. Epub 2014 Apr 24.


Developmental and evolutionary data from vertebrates are beginning to elucidate the origin of the sensorimotor pathway that links gravity and motion detection to image-stabilizing eye movements--the vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR). Conserved transcription factors coordinate the development of the vertebrate ear into three functional sensory compartments (graviception/translational linear acceleration, angular acceleration and sound perception). These sensory components connect to specific populations of vestibular and auditory projection neurons in the dorsal hindbrain through undetermined molecular mechanisms. In contrast, a molecular basis for the patterning of the vestibular projection neurons is beginning to emerge. These are organized through the actions of rostrocaudally and dorsoventrally restricted transcription factors into a 'hodological mosaic' within which coherent and largely segregated subgroups are specified to project to different targets in the spinal cord and brain stem. A specific set of these regionally diverse vestibular projection neurons functions as the central element that transforms vestibular sensory signals generated by active and passive head and body movements into motor output through the extraocular muscles. The large dynamic range of motion-related sensory signals requires an organization of VOR pathways as parallel, frequency-tuned, hierarchical connections from the sensory periphery to the motor output. We suggest that eyes, ears and functional connections subserving the VOR are vertebrate novelties that evolved into a functionally coherent motor control system in an almost stereotypic organization across vertebrate taxa.

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.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anura
  • Chickens
  • Ear, Inner / innervation*
  • Ear, Inner / physiology
  • Eye Movements*
  • Neurons / cytology*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Reflex, Vestibulo-Ocular*
  • Rhombencephalon / cytology*
  • Rhombencephalon / physiology