Controlling posture requires continuous sensory feedback about body motion and orientation, including from the vestibular organs. Little is known about the role of tilt vs. translation vs. rotation vestibular cues. We examined whether intersubject differences in vestibular function were correlated with intersubject differences in postural control. Vestibular function was assayed using vestibular direction-recognition perceptual thresholds, which determine the smallest motion that can be reliably perceived by a subject seated on a motorized platform in the dark. In study A, we measured thresholds for lateral translation, vertical translation, yaw rotation, and head-centered roll tilts. In study B, we measured thresholds for roll, pitch, and left anterior-right posterior and right anterior-left posterior tilts. Center-of-pressure (CoP) sway was measured in sensory organization tests (study A) and Romberg tests (study B). We found a strong positive relationship between CoP sway and lateral translation thresholds but not CoP sway and other thresholds. This finding suggests that the vestibular encoding of lateral translation may contribute substantially to balance control. Since thresholds assay sensory noise, our results support the hypothesis that vestibular noise contributes to spontaneous postural sway. Specifically, we found that lateral translation thresholds explained more of the variation in postural sway in postural test conditions with altered proprioceptive cues (vs. a solid surface), consistent with postural sway being more dependent on vestibular noise when the vestibular contribution to balance is higher. These results have potential implications for vestibular implants, balance prostheses, and physical therapy exercises.
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