Global orientation in space and the lateralization of brain functions

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Abstract

Purpose of review

The functional role of the vestibular system for multisensory orientation and sensorimotor control is reviewed with a special focus on hemispherical lateralization and its consequences for neurological disorders of higher cortical function.

Recent findings

The peripheral and central vestibular systems are bilaterally organized with ipsilateral and contralateral ascending pathways and two multisensory cortical networks in the right and left hemisphere. The vestibular cortical system shows a structural and functional lateralization with a dominance of the right hemisphere in right-handers and the left hemisphere in left-handers. Although the vestibular brainstem pathways are evenly distributed at lower pontine level, an increasing lateralization builds up because of an asymmetric number of pontine and mesencephalic crossing fibers from left to right in right-handers. This vestibular lateralization causes more frequent and more severe disorders of higher sensorimotor dysfunction in lesions of the right hemisphere such as in hemispatial neglect and the pusher syndrome.

Summary

There is evidence that multisensory higher vestibular functions including large-scale spatial orientation, spatial memory and navigation are dominated by the right temporo-parietal cortex. A beneficial result of lateralization of brain functions in healthy individuals is that it enables the individual to produce a global sensorimotor response even in case of a mismatch of the actual right and left sensory inputs. The consequence for neurology, however, is that lesions in the dominant hemisphere cause more frequently and more severe disorders such as the visuo-spatial hemineglect and the pusher syndrome.

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