The Sensitivity of an Immature Vestibular System to Altered Gravity


  • Grant Sponsor: German Space Agency (DLR); Grant number: 50WB0323; Grant Sponsor: French Space Agency (CNES); Grant numbers: DAR4800000348 and DAR4800000292.

Correspondence to: Eberhard Horn, Auf dem Rucken 16/1, 89143 Blaubeuren, Germany. E-mail:;


Stimulus deprivation or stimulus augmentation can induce long-lasting modifications to sensory and motor systems. If deprivation is effective only during a limited period of life this phase is called “critical period.” A critical period was described for the development of the roll-induced vestibuloocular reflex (rVOR) of Xenopus laevis using spaceflights. Spaceflight durations and basic conditions of Xenopus’ development did not make it possible to answer the question whether exposure of the immature vestibular organ to weightlessness affects rVOR development. The embryonic development of Pleurodeles waltl is slow enough to solve this problem because the rVOR cannot be induced before 15 dpf. Stage 20–21 embryos (4 dpf) were exposed to microgravity during a 10-day spaceflight, or to 3g hypergravity following the same time schedule. After termination of altered gravity, the rVOR was recorded twice in most animals. The main observations were as follows: (1) after the first rVOR appearance at stage 37 (16 dpf), both rVOR gain and amplitude increased steadily up to saturation levels of 0.22 and 20°, respectively. (2) Three days after termination of microgravity, flight and ground larvae showed no rVOR; 1 day later, the rVOR could be induced only in ground larvae. Differences disappeared after 3 weeks. (3) For 10 days after 3g exposure, rVOR development was similar to that of 1g-controls but 3 weeks later, 3g-larvae showed a larger rVOR than 1g-controls. These observations indicate that the immature vestibular system is transiently sensitive to microgravity exposure and that exposure of the immature vestibular system to hypergravity leads to a slowly growing vestibular sensitization. J. Exp. Zool. 317A:333–346, 2012. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.