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Quantifying Utricular Stimulation During Natural Behavior


Michael Rowe, Department of Biological Sciences, Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701. E-mail:


The use of natural stimuli in neurophysiological studies has led to significant insights into the encoding strategies used by sensory neurons. To investigate these encoding strategies in vestibular receptors and neurons, we have developed a method for calculating the stimuli delivered to a vestibular organ, the utricle, during natural (unrestrained) behaviors, using the turtle as our experimental preparation. High-speed digital video sequences are used to calculate the dynamic gravito-inertial (GI) vector acting on the head during behavior. X-ray computed tomography (CT) scans are used to determine the orientation of the otoconial layer (OL) of the utricle within the head, and the calculated GI vectors are then rotated into the plane of the OL. Thus, the method allows us to quantify the spatio-temporal structure of stimuli to the OL during natural behaviors. In the future, these waveforms can be used as stimuli in neurophysiological experiments to understand how natural signals are encoded by vestibular receptors and neurons. We provide one example of the method, which shows that turtle feeding behaviors can stimulate the utricle at frequencies higher than those typically used in vestibular studies. This method can be adapted to other species, to other vestibular end organs, and to other methods of quantifying head movements. J. Exp. Zool. 317A:467-480, 2012. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.