Head direction (HD) cells in the rat anterodorsal thalamic nucleus (ADN) fire relative to the animal's directional heading. Lesions of the entire vestibular labyrinth have been shown to severely alter VIIIth nerve input and disrupt these HD signals. To assess the specific contributions of the semicircular canals without altering tonic VIIIth nerve input, ADN cells were recorded from chinchillas after bilateral semicircular canal occlusion. Although ADN HD cells (and also hippocampal place cells and theta cells) were identified in intact chinchillas, no direction-specific activity was seen after canal occlusions. Instead, "bursty" cells were observed that exhibited burst-firing patterns similar to normal HD cells but with firing unrelated to the animal's actual head direction. Importantly, when pairs of bursty cells were recorded, the temporal order of their firing was dependent on the animal's turning direction, as is the case for pairs of normal HD cells. These results suggest that bursty cells are actually disrupted HD cells. The present findings further suggest that the HD cell network is still able to generate spiking activity after canal occlusions, but the semicircular canal input is critical for updating the network activity in register with changes in the animal's HD.
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