Mechanical occlusion (plugging) of the slender ducts of semicircular canals has been used in the clinic as well as in basic vestibular research. Here, we investigated the effect of canal plugging in two macaque monkeys on the horizontal vestibuloocular reflex (VOR) and the responses of vestibular-nerve afferents during passive head rotations. Afferent responses to active head movements were also studied. The horizontal VOR gain decreased after plugging to <0.1 for frequencies <2 Hz but rose to about 0.6 as frequency was increased to 15 Hz. Afferents innervating plugged horizontal canals had response sensitivities that increased with the frequency of passive rotations from <0.01 (spikes/s)/(°/s) at 0.5 Hz to values of about 0.2 and 0.5 (spikes/s)/(°/s) at 8 Hz for regular and irregular afferents, respectively (<50% of responses in controls). An increase in phase lead was also noted following plugging in afferent discharge, but not in the VOR. Because the phase discrepancy between the VOR and afferent discharge is much larger than that seen in control animals, this suggests that central adaptation shapes VOR dynamics following plugging. The effect of canal plugging on afferent responses can be modeled as an increase in stiffness and a reduction in the dominant time constant and gain in the transfer function describing canal dynamics. Responses were also evident during active head rotations, consistent with the frequency content of these movements. We conclude that canal plugging in macaques is effective only at frequencies <2 Hz. At higher frequencies, afferents show significant responses, with a nearly 90° phase lead, such that they encode near-rotational acceleration. Our results demonstrate that afferents innervating plugged canals respond robustly during voluntary movements, a finding that has implications for understanding the effects of canal plugging in clinical practice.
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