The vestibule lies between the semicircular canals and the cochlea. It contains two bulblike sacs, the saccule and utricle, whose membranes are continuous with those of the cochlea and semicircular canals, respectively. The saccule and utricle contain receptors that help maintain equilibrium.

Equilibrium is maintained in response to two kinds of motion:

  • Static equilibrium maintains the position of the head in response to linear movements of the body, such as starting to walk or stopping.
  • Dynamic equilibrium maintains the position of the head in response to rotational motion of the body, such as rocking (as in a boat) or turning.

The perception of equilibrium occurs in the vestibular apparatus. Motion in the following two structures is detected as follows:

  • The vestibule is the primary detector of changes in static equilibrium. A sensory receptor called a macula is located in the walls of the saccule and utricle, the two bulblike sacs of the vestibule. A macula contains numerous receptor cells called hair cells, from which numerous stereocilia (long microvilli) and a single kinocilium (a true cilium) extend into a glycoprotein gel, the otolithic membrane. Calcium carbonate crystals called otoliths pervade the otolithic membrane, increasing its density and thus its responsiveness to changes in motion. Changes in linear motion cause the otolithic membrane to move forward and backward in the utricle or up and down in the saccule. The movement of the otolithic membrane causes similar movements in the embedded stereocilia of the hair cells, which in turn initiate graded potentials.
  • The semicircular canals are the primary detector of changes in dynamic equilibrium. The three canals, individually called the anterior, posterior, and lateral canals, are arranged at right angles to one another. The expanded base of each canal, called an ampulla, contains a sensory receptor, or crista ampullaris. Like the maculae of the vestibule, each crista ampullaris contains numerous hair cells whose stereocilia and kinocilium protrude into a gelatinous matrix, the cupula (which is analogous to the otolithic membranes of the maculae). Changes in rotational motion cause the cupula and the embedded stereocilia to move, which stimulates the hair cells to generate a graded potential.

Graded potentials in the hair cells of the maculae and cristae result in changes in the amounts of neurotransmitter secreted. In response to these changes, action potentials are generated in the fibers of the vestibular nerve, which subsequently joins the vestibulocochlear nerve. From here, the nerve impulses travel to the pons and the medulla oblongata.