The peripheral vestibular organs have long been known to receive a bilateral efferent innervation from the brain stem. However, the functional role of the efferent vestibular system has remained elusive. In this study, we investigated efferent-mediated responses in vestibular afferents of alert behaving primates (macaque monkey). We found that efferent-mediated rotational responses could be obtained from vestibular nerve fibers innervating the semicircular canals after conventional afferent responses were nulled by placing the corresponding canal plane orthogonal to the plane of motion. Responses were type III, i.e., excitatory for rotational velocity trapezoids (peak velocity, 320°/s) in both directions of rotation, consistent with those previously reported in the decerebrate chinchilla. Responses consisted of both fast and slow components and were larger in irregular (∼10 spikes/s) than in regular afferents (∼2 spikes/s). Following unilateral labyrinthectomy (UL) on the side opposite the recording site, similar responses were obtained. To confirm the vestibular source of the efferent-mediated responses, the ipsilateral horizontal and posterior canals were plugged following the UL. Responses to high-velocity rotations were drastically reduced when the superior canal (SC), the only intact canal, was in its null position, compared with when the SC was pitched 50° upward from the null position. Our findings show that vestibular afferents in alert primates show efferent-mediated responses that are related to the discharge regularity of the afferent, are of vestibular origin, and can be the result of both afferent excitation and inhibition.
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