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Neural basis of the magnetic compass: interactions of visual, magnetic and vestibular inputs in the pigeon's brain

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Single unit electrical activity was recorded extracellularly in the lateral and superior vestibular nuclei, the vestibulo-cerebellum and the nucleus of the basal optic root (nBOR) under earth-strength magnetic stimulation. Units in the vestibular system responded with either inhibition or excitation to the magnetic stimuli only if the animal was moved out of the horizontal plane. No responses to the artificial magnetic field were observed when enucleation was performed contralateral to the recording site or when magnetic stimuli were applied in total darkness.

Most of the units in the nBOR responded to slow direction changes in the magnetic field with a gradual augmentation of activity. The responses were generally weak but nevertheless statistically significant and seemed to be direction selective, i.e. different cells responded to a different distinct direction change of the magnetic field.

The results indicate, that information provided by magnetic cues in the earth's strength range may be conveyed from the visual to the vestibular system via a projection from the nBOR and then related to active movements of the animal.

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nBOR :

nucleus of the basal optic root


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Semm, P., Nohr, D., Demaine, C. et al. Neural basis of the magnetic compass: interactions of visual, magnetic and vestibular inputs in the pigeon's brain. J. Comp. Physiol. 155, 283–288 (1984).

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