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Non-technical summary  It has been shown previously that application of short pulses of optical energy at infrared wavelengths can evoke action potentials in neurons and mechanical contraction in cardiac muscle cells. Optical stimuli are particularly attractive because of the ability to deliver focused energy through tissue without physical contact or electrical charge injection. Here we demonstrate efficacy of pulsed infrared radiation to stimulate balance organs of the inner ear, specifically to modulate the pattern of neural signals transmitted from the angular motion sensing semicircular canals to the brain. The ability to control action potentials demonstrates the potential of pulsed optical stimuli for basic science investigations and future therapeutic applications.

Abstract  The present results show that the semicircular canal crista ampullaris of the toadfish, Opsanus tau, is sensitive to infrared radiation (IR) applied in vivo. IR pulse trains (∼1862 nm, ∼200 μs pulse−1) delivered to the sensory epithelium by an optical fibre evoked profound changes in phasic and tonic discharge rates of postsynaptic afferent neurons. Phasic afferent responses to pulsed IR occurred with a latency of <8 ms while tonic responses developed with a time constant (τ) of 7 ms to 10 s following the onset or cessation of the radiation. Afferents responded to direct optical radiation of the sensory epithelium but did not respond to thermal stimuli that generated nearly equivalent temperature increases of the whole organ. A subset of afferent neurons fired an action potential in response to each IR pulse delivered to the sensory epithelium, at phase-locked rates up to 96 pulses per second. The latency between IR pulses and afferent nerve action potentials was much greater than synaptic delay and spike generation, demonstrating the presence of a signalling delay interposed between the IR pulse and the action potential. The same IR stimulus applied to afferent nerve axons failed to evoke responses of similar magnitude and failed to phase-lock afferent nerve action potentials. The present data support the hypothesis that pulsed IR activates sensory hair cells, thus leading to modulation of synaptic transmission and afferent nerve discharge reported here.