Increased brain responsivity to galvanic vestibular stimulation in bilateral vestibular failure

Christoph Helmchen, Matthias Rother, Peer Spliethoff, Andreas Sprenger


In this event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study we investigated how the brain of patients with bilateral vestibular failure (BVF) responds to vestibular stimuli. We used imperceptible noisy galvanic vestibular stimulation (GVS) and perceptible bi-mastoidal GVS intensities and related the corresponding brain activity to the evoked motion perception. In contrast to caloric irrigation, GVS stimulates the vestibular organ at its potentially intact afferent nerve site. Motion perception thresholds and cortical responses were compared between 26 BVF patients to 27 age-matched healthy control participants. To identify the specificity of vestibular cortical responses we used a parametric design with different stimulus intensities (noisy imperceptible, low perceptible, high perceptible) allowing region-specific stimulus response functions. In a 2 × 3 flexible factorial design all GVS-related brain activities were contrasted with a sham condition that did not evoke perceived motion. Patients had a higher motion perception threshold and rated the vestibular stimuli higher than the healthy participants. There was a stimulus intensity related and region-specific increase of activity with steep stimulus response functions in parietal operculum (e.g. OP2), insula, superior temporal gyrus, early visual cortices (V3) and cerebellum while activity in the hippocampus and intraparietal sulcus did not correlate with vestibular stimulus intensity. Using whole brain analysis, group comparisons revealed increased brain activity in early visual cortices (V3) and superior temporal gyrus of patients but there was no significant interaction, i.e. stimulus-response function in these regions were still similar in both groups. Brain activity in these regions during (high)GVS increased with higher dizziness-related handicap scores but was not related to the degree of vestibular impairment or disease duration. nGVS did not evoke cortical responses in any group. Our data indicate that perceptible GVS-related cortical responsivity is not diminished but increased in multisensory (visual-vestibular) cortical regions despite bilateral failure of the peripheral vestibular organ. The increased activity in early visual cortices (V3) and superior temporal gyrus of BVF patients has several potential implications: (i) their cortical reciprocal inhibitory visuo-vestibular interaction is dysfunctional, (ii) it may contribute to the visual dependency of BVF patients, and (iii) it needs to be considered when BVF patients receive peripheral vestibular stimulation devices, e.g. vestibular implants or portable GVS devices. Imperceptible nGVS did not elicit cortical brain responses making it unlikely that the reported balance improvement of BVF by nGVS is mediated by cortical mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101942
JournalNeuroImage: Clinical
Pages (from-to)101942
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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