Journal of neurophysiology

Utricular afferents: morphology of peripheral terminals.

PMID 25632074


The utricle provides critical information about spatiotemporal properties of head movement. It comprises multiple subdivisions whose functional roles are poorly understood. We previously identified four subdivisions in turtle utricle, based on hair bundle structure and mechanics, otoconial membrane structure and hair bundle coupling, and immunoreactivity to calcium-binding proteins. Here we ask whether these macular subdivisions are innervated by distinctive populations of afferents to help us understand the role each subdivision plays in signaling head movements. We quantified the morphology of 173 afferents and identified six afferent classes, which differ in structure and macular locus. Calyceal and dimorphic afferents innervate one striolar band. Bouton afferents innervate a second striolar band; they have elongated terminals and the thickest processes and axons of all bouton units. Bouton afferents in lateral (LES) and medial (MES) extrastriolae have small-diameter axons but differ in collecting area, bouton number, and hair cell contacts (LES > MES). A fourth, distinctive population of bouton afferents supplies the juxtastriola. These results, combined with our earlier findings on utricular hair cells and the otoconial membrane, suggest the hypotheses that MES and calyceal afferents encode head movement direction with high spatial resolution and that MES afferents are well suited to signal three-dimensional head orientation and striolar afferents to signal head movement onset.