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Biology LibreTexts

36.4D: Balance and Determining Equilibrium

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  • With hair cells in the inner ear that sense linear and rotational motion, the vestibular system determines equilibrium and balance states.


    Describe the anatomy that enables equilibrium and balance


    Key Points

    • The hair cells of the utricle and saccule of the inner ear extend into the otolith, a dense viscous substance with calcium carbonate crystals.
    • The otolith slides over the macula, tissue supporting the hair cells, in the direction of gravity when the head is moved due to its greater inertia, causing a pattern of hair cell depolarization interpreted by the brain as tilting.
    • The three semicircular canals of the inner ear are ring-like structures with one ring oriented in the horizontal plane and the other two rings oriented at approximately 45 degrees relative to the sagittal plane.
    • The ampulla, found at the base of each semicircular canal, contains hair cells that extend into the membrane that attaches to the top of the ampulla to an area called the cupula.
    • A head rotation causes the fluid in the semicircular canal to move, but with a lag which produces a deflection of the cupula in the direction opposite to the head rotation which in turn causes the hair cells to depolarize.
    • Using the hair cell depolarization information from all three ampullae, the direction and speed of head movements in all three dimensions can be detected by the vestibular system.

    Key Terms

    • stereocilium: any of many nonmotile cellular structures resembling long microvilli; those of the inner ear are responsible for auditory transduction
    • equilibrium: the condition of a system in which competing influences are balanced, resulting in no net change
    • otolith: a small particle, comprised mainly of calcium carbonate, found in the inner ear of vertebrates, being part of the balance sense


    Along with audition, the inner ear is responsible for encoding information about equilibrium, or the sense of balance. A similar mechanoreceptor—a hair cell with stereocilia —senses head position, head movement, and whether our bodies are in motion. These cells are located within the vestibule of the inner ear. Head position is sensed by the utricle and saccule, whereas head movement is sensed by the semicircular canals. The neural signals generated in the vestibular ganglion are transmitted through the vestibulocochlear nerve to the brain stem and cerebellum. Together, these components make up the vestibular system.

    Linear acceleration

    The utricle and saccule are both largely composed of macula tissue (plural = maculae). The macula is composed of hair cells surrounded by support cells. The stereocilia of the hair cells extend into a viscous gel called the otolith. The otolith contains calcium carbonate crystals, making it denser and giving it greater inertia than the macula. Therefore, gravity will cause the otolith to move separately from the macula in response to head movements. Tilting the head causes the otolith to slide over the macula in the direction of gravity. The moving otolith layer, in turn, bends the sterocilia to cause some hair cells to depolarize as others hyperpolarize. The exact tilt of the head is interpreted by the brain on the basis of the pattern of hair-cell depolarization.


    Linear acceleration coding by maculae: The maculae are specialized for sensing linear acceleration, such as when gravity acts on the tilting head, or if the head starts moving in a straight line. The difference in inertia between the hair cell stereocilia and the otolith in which they are embedded leads to a force that causes the stereocilia to bend in the direction of that linear acceleration.

    Rotational movement

    The semicircular canals are three ring-like extensions of the vestibule. One is oriented in the horizontal plane, whereas the other two are oriented in the vertical plane. The anterior and posterior vertical canals are oriented at approximately 45 degrees relative to the sagittal plane. The base of each semicircular canal, where it meets with the vestibule, connects to an enlarged region known as the ampulla. The ampulla contains the hair cells that respond to rotational movement, such as turning your head from side to side when saying “no.” The stereocilia of these hair cells extend into the cupula, a membrane that attaches to the top of the ampulla. As the head rotates in a plane parallel to the semicircular canal, the fluid lags, deflecting the cupula in the direction opposite to the head movement. The semicircular canals contain several ampullae, with some oriented horizontally and others oriented vertically. By comparing the relative movements of both the horizontal and vertical ampullae, the vestibular system can detect the direction of most head movements within three-dimensional (3-D) space.


    Rotational coding by semicircular canals: Rotational movement of the head is encoded by the hair cells in the base of the semicircular canals. As one of the canals moves in an arc with the head, the internal fluid moves in the opposite direction, causing the cupula and stereocilia to bend. The movement of two canals within a plane results in information about the direction in which the head is moving, and activation of all six canals can give a very precise indication of head movement in three dimensions.