Eye movements during multi-axis whole-body rotations

Christopher J. Bockisch, Dominik Straumann, Thomas Haslwanter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


The semicircular canals and the otolith organs both contribute to gaze stabilization during head movement. We investigated how these sensory signals interact when they provide conflicting information about head orientation in space. Human subjects were reoriented 90° in pitch or roll during long-duration, constant-velocity rotation about the earth-vertical axis while we measured three-dimensional eye movements. After the reorientation, the otoliths correctly indicated the static orientation of the subject with respect to gravity, while the semicircular canals provided a strong signal of rotation. This rotation signal from the canals could only be consistent with a static orientation with respect to gravity if the rotation-axis indicated by the canals was exactly parallel to gravity. This was not true, so a cue-conflict existed. These conflicting stimuli elicited motion sickness and a complex tumbling sensation. Strong horizontal, vertical, and/or torsional eye movements were also induced, allowing us to study the influence of the conflict between the otoliths and the canals on all three eye-movement components. We found a shortening of the horizontal and vertical time constants of the decay of nystagmus and a trend for an increase in peak velocity following reorientation. The dumping of the velocity storage occurred regardless of whether eye velocity along that axis was compensatory to the head rotation or not. We found a trend for the axis of eye velocity to reorient to make the head-velocity signal from the canals consistent with the head-orientation signal from the otoliths, but this reorientation was small and only observed when subjects were tilted to upright. Previous models of canal-otolith interaction could not fully account for our data, particularly the decreased time constant of the decay of nystagmus. We present a model with a mechanism that reduces the velocity-storage component in the presence of a strong cue-conflict. Our study, supported by other experiments, also indicates that static otolith signals exhibit considerably smaller effects on eye movements in humans than in monkeys.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)355-366
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Neurophysiology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Adult
  • Eye Movements/physiology
  • Head Movements/physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Otolithic Membrane/physiology
  • Rotation
  • Semicircular Canals/physiology


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