Neural substrates, dynamics and thresholds of galvanic vestibular stimulation in the behaving primate

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Galvanic vestibular stimulation (GVS) uses the external application of electrical current to selectively target the vestibular system in humans. Despite its recent popularity for the assessment/treatment of clinical conditions, exactly how this non-invasive tool activates the vestibular system remains an open question. Here we directly investigate single vestibular afferent responses to GVS applied to the mastoid processes of awake-behaving monkeys. Transmastoid GVS produces robust and parallel activation of both canal and otolith afferents. Notably, afferent activation increases with intrinsic neuronal variability resulting in constant GVS-evoked neuronal detection thresholds across all afferents. Additionally, afferent tuning differs for GVS versus natural self-motion stimulation. Using a stochastic model of repetitive activity in afferents, we largely explain the main features of GVS-evoked vestibular afferent dynamics. Taken together, our results reveal the neural substrate underlying transmastoid GVS-evoked perceptual, ocular and postural responses—information that is essential to advance GVS applicability for biomedical uses in humans.