In addition to the structures used for hearing, the inner ear contains the semicircular canals and the utriculus and sacculus, the chief organs of balance and orientation. There are three fluid-filled semicircular canals: two determine vertical body movement such as falling or jumping, while the third determines horizontal movements like rotation. Each canal contains an area at its base, called the ampulla, that houses sensory hair cells. The hair cells project into a thick, gelatinous mass. When the head is moved, the canals move also, but the thick fluid lags behind, and the hair cells are bent by being driven through the relatively stationary fluid. As in the cochlea, the sensory hair cells stimulate nerve impulses to the brain. The sensory hair cells of the saclike utriculus and sacculus project into a gelatinous material that contains lime crystals. When the head is tilted in various positions, the gelatin and crystals exert varying pressure on the sensory cells, which in turn send varying patterns of stimulation to the brain. The utriculus sends indications of the position of the head to the brain and detects stopping and starting. The utriculus and sacculus also help control blood flow to the brain.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.