Perspectives for the comprehensive examination of semicircular canal and otolith function

A H Clarke
Uchū Seibutsu Kagaku 2001, 15 (4): 393-400
A review is presented on the three-dimensional aspects of the vestibulo-oculomotor system and the current functional tests for unilateral examination of the individual receptors in the vestibular labyrinth. In the presentation, attention is directed towards the recently developed vestibular tests, which promise a more comprehensive examination of labyrinth function. More explicitly, unilateral tests for the utricle, saccule and the individual semicircular canals are discussed. Caloric irrigation and rotatory testing are widely used as tests for the integrity of the (horizontal) semicircular canals. Little useful diagnosis is made however on the vertical canals, not to mention the otolith organs. A promising approach to the examination of individual semicircular canal function has been described. This involves the perception of self-rotation in each of the planes of the semicircular canals. The patient/subject is rotated by an arbitrary amount on a standard Barany chair and then required to return the chair to its original position, by joystick control of the chair velocity. In order to test the vertical canals, the head of the subject/patient is positioned so that the plane of each canal lies in the plane of rotation. A promising unilateral test of saccular function involves the use of vestibular evoked myogenic potentials. Here it has been demonstrated that the saccules can be activated using brief, high-intensity acoustic clicks. The myogenic potential is measured using surface electrodes over the sternocleidomastoid muscles. Initial data from patients has indicated that the test is specific for unilateral saccule disorders. The unilateral test of utricle function is based on the eccentric displacement profile. Thus, eccentric displacement of the head to 3.5 cm during constant velocity rotation about the earth-vertical axis generates an adequate unilateral stimulation of the otolith organ, without involving the semicircular canals. This paradigm has also proved efficient in localizing peripheral otolith dysfunction by means of SVV estimation. This represents a novel test of otolith function that can be easily integrated into routine clinical testing. In contrast to the otolith-ocular response, the subjective visual vertical also reflects the processing of otolithic information in the higher brain centres (thalamus, vestibular cortex). Exploitation of the two complementary approaches therefore provides useful information for both experimental and clinical scientists. Of direct interest is the finding that testing with the subject rotating on-centre is sufficient to localize peripheral otolith dysfunction by means of SVV estimation. This represents a novel test of otolith function that can be easily integrated into routine clinical testing. In addition to caloric testing, which has remained the classical unilateral test of vestibular function, the newly developed tests should improve the differential diagnosis of vestibular disorders.

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