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Journal of Vestibular Research 25 (2015) 7389 73

DOI 10.3233/VES-150544
IOS Press

Vestibular involvement in cognition:

Visuospatial ability, attention, executive
function, and memory
Robin T. Bigelow and Yuri Agrawal
Department of Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore,

Received 3 September 2014

Accepted 21 November 2014

Abstract. A growing body of literature suggests the inner ear vestibular system has a substantial impact on cognitive function.
The strongest evidence exists in connecting vestibular function to the cognitive domain of visuospatial ability, which includes
spatial memory, navigation, mental rotation, and mental representation of three-dimensional space. Substantial evidence also
exists suggesting the vestibular system has an impact on attention and cognitive processing ability. The cognitive domains of
memory and executive function are also implicated in a number of studies. We will review the current literature, discuss possible
causal links between vestibular dysfunction and cognitive performance, and suggest areas of future research.

Keywords: Vestibular system, cognition, visuospatial ability

1. The vestibular system and cognitive functions Cognitive function can be more precisely analyzed
by breaking it down into a number of cognitive do-
Classic teaching on the vestibular system empha- mains. While the classification into cognitive domains
sizes its role in maintaining gaze stability and bal- varies in the literature, most studies include the do-
ance via reflexive mechanisms. The typical symptoms mains of visuospatial ability, memory, executive func-
associated with vestibular dysfunction include dizzi- tion, and attention [66,74,130]. Each of these domains
ness, unsteadiness, and vertigo, reflecting these cardi- will be further described in their respective sections of
nal roles of the vestibular system. However, a grow- this review.
ing body of literature is providing insight into vestibu- Within the vestibular literature, substantial animal
lar contributions to a variety of cognitive processes,
research has shown impaired visuospatial abilities in
including perceptual/visuospatial ability, memory, at-
animals with vestibular lesions [124]. This paper will
tention, and executive function. Clinicians have long
review several lines of human research linking vestibu-
reported anecdotally a connection between vestibular
dysfunction and cognitive impairment, and complaints lar and cognitive function. The cognitive domains most
of memory loss and brain fog have also appeared on often studied in human vestibular research are visu-
online message boards led by patients with vertigo and ospatial ability and attention, with some studies also
vestibular disease [19,61,119]. investigating memory and executive function. We will
review the research linking vestibular dysfunction to
impairments in visuospatial ability, attention, executive
Corresponding author: Robin T Bigelow, Department of Oto-
function, and memory, followed by research examining
laryngology, Head & Neck Surgery, Johns Hopkins University
School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, USA. Tel.: +1 410 954 9825; the cognitive effects of experimental vestibular stimu-
Fax: +1 410 955 0035; E-mail: lation and manipulation.

ISSN 0957-4271/15/$35.00 
c 2015 IOS Press and the authors. All rights reserved
74 R.T. Bigelow and Y. Agrawal / Vestibular involvement in cognition: Visuospatial ability, attention, executive function, and memory

2. Visuospatial ability right UVD patients, but found no other significant as-
sociations between vestibular function and visuospa-
Visuospatial ability is a term used to describe how tial ability [67,69]. One way of interpreting these re-
the mind organizes and understands two- and three- sults would be that BVD leads to impaired visuospa-
dimensional space. It includes a variety of skills in- tial ability, while UVD and vestibular training lead
cluding spatial memory, mental imagery, rotation, dis- only to mild or no changes in performance. Alterna-
tance and depth perception, navigation, and visuospa- tively, the impairments with BVD but not with UVD
tial construction [109]. Spatial memory, navigation, or vestibular training could be due to methodological
and mental rotation have been studied in relation to differences in the studies. The study on BVD patients
vestibular dysfunction and will be reviewed here. A included only 10 patients and compared them to age,
summary of the major studies can be found in Table 1. sex, and education matched controls, while the latter
two studies published in 2007 and 2011 on UVD and
2.1. Spatial memory vestibular-trained individuals included more partici-
pants and matched them to controls more thoroughly,
Spatial memory is a complex construct that en- including on computer experience. Repeating the study
compasses information about several different compo- on patients with BVD, including more participants and
nents of ones environment: including geometry, rel- controls matched for computer experience would pro-
ative position, distance, size, orientation, and coordi- vide more insight into the association between BVD
nates [70]. A number of studies have examined spa- and performance on the vWMT and other visuospatial
tial memory in patients with various types of vestibu- cognitive tests. Assessing vWMT performance in indi-
lar deficits using the virtual Morris Water Maze Task viduals with vestibular impairments other than BVD or
(vWMT) [6,7,44,45,94,122]. First described in 1998 UVD would be valuable as well.
by Astur et al., the vWMT is a computerized ver- In another study of vestibular dysfunction, spatial
sion for humans of the Morris Water Maze that is memory was assessed with the Corsi block test, a
used in studies of rats. Participants sit at a computer widely used and validated test of spatial memory [75].
and have to locate a concealed platform in a virtual Participants are asked to repeat a sequence tapped on
pool using visual cues [6]. A widely cited study by a number of blocks, starting with short sequences and
Brandt and Schautzer compared ten patients who un- progressing to longer sequences until participants can
derwent bilateral vestibular neurectomy to age-, sex-, no longer reproduce the pattern. Fifty compensated
and education-matched controls. The bilateral vestibu- unilateral vestibular neuritis patients were compared to
lar dysfunction (BVD) patients had significant de- age- and sex-matched controls on the Corsi block test.
creases in hippocampal size (16.9%) and impaired per- Patients performed significantly worse than controls,
formance on several aspects of the vWMT including and were also found to have higher co-morbid depres-
longer path length and decreased time spent in the cor- sion and anxiety [62]. It should be noted that while the
rect quadrant, but no difference in intelligence or non- patients and controls were matched for age and sex, the
spatial memory [25,123]. Interestingly, the BVD pa- controls were recruited from healthcare staff. As such,
tients performed poorly on the vWMT even though the differences between the groups could be due to differ-
test does not involve any vestibular inputs (the head is ences in education, career choice, or familiarity with
stationary). However, descriptions of several BVD par- research.
ticipants performance suggest that the BVD patients
had difficulties understanding the vWMT and did not 2.2. Spatial navigation
participate in the task as well as the controls [25,123].
This raised questions about whether the BVD patients Spatial navigation refers to the ability to move
truly had spatial memory dysfunction vs. another cog- through ones environment. Related concepts include
nitive deficit or lack of technological familiarity. Sub- head direction, which is awareness of the direction
sequent studies from the same research group exam- that ones head is angled along the horizontal merid-
ined unilateral vestibular dysfunction (UVD) patients ian, and path integration, which is the ability to mon-
and vestibular-trained individuals (dancers, slack lin- itor ones position along a planned trajectory. Spa-
ers (i.e. individuals who walk across loose ropes)). tial navigation is typically assessed by having subjects
These studies found significantly worse performance move along memorized trajectories or towards mem-
on only one of several measures of the vWMT in orized targets. In rodents, the vestibular system has
R.T. Bigelow and Y. Agrawal / Vestibular involvement in cognition: Visuospatial ability, attention, executive function, and memory 75

been shown to contribute to the formation of spatial 2.3. Mental rotation

representations of their environments both in light and
dark, which is important for navigation [153]. Stud- Another cognitive task that measures visuospatial
ies of spatial navigation in humans with vestibular loss ability is mental transformation or mental rotation.
have shown clear evidence of navigational impairment Subjects are shown two similar objects which are ro-
in patients compared to controls. Guidetti found that tated in relation to each other. Subjects are asked to
compared to controls, patients with compensated uni- mentally rotate the images to determine whether they
lateral vestibular neuritis required more time to walk are identical or mirror images of one another [103].
on a memorized square, circle, or triangular path with Several authors have compared mental rotation abil-
their eyes closed, but not eyes open. This finding sug- ity in patients with a variety of vestibular disorders to
gests an impairment in spatial navigation when vi- controls and found vestibular patients had more errors
sual cues are removed [62]. Several studies of spa- and were slower on mental rotation tasks, particularly
tial navigation performed on patients before, immedi- when the tasks involved human figures (egocentric)
ately after, and month(s) after vestibular neurectomy rather than objects or non-human figures [32,59]. Sim-
provide well-matched controls and give insight into ilarly, Wallwork found that self-reported dizzy indi-
the effects of acute vs. chronic vestibular loss. Stud- viduals performed worse on mental rotation tasks than
ies performed by Pruch in 1999 and 2005, Cohen controls, although it was not established whether the
in 2000, and Borel et al. in 2004 showed that surgi- dizzy patients had vestibular disease [136].
cal vestibular deafferentation led acutely to increased Pruch performed a study of mental rotation abil-
numbers of turn errors and increased time required to ity comparing patients pre and post unilateral vestibu-
reach memorized targets when walking, particularly lar neurectomy to BVD patients and matched controls.
Post-op and BVD patients were impaired in mental ro-
during eyes closed navigation when visual cues are ab-
tation of three-dimensional objects and in mental scan-
sent. Many patients improved their navigational abili-
ning of familiar and unfamiliar environments [106].
ties over the months following surgery, but significant
Mental rotation has also been studied in a number
deficits often remained [21,36,104,105]. Similar stud-
of experiments involving vestibular stimulation, which
ies performed months to years after surgical vestibular
will be reviewed later in this paper.
loss similarly revealed significant residual navigation
deficits [55,56,127].
2.4. Visuospatial conclusions
These studies indicate that patients with vestibu-
lar dysfunction have impaired navigational ability,
These studies suggest that altered or absent vestibu-
especially when visual cues are removed in eyes- lar input may lead to a fundamental change in an in-
closed conditions. This suggests the importance of the dividuals mental representation of three-dimensional
vestibular system in an individuals awareness of their space. The vWMT, Corsi block, and mental rotation
position in three-dimensional space. It is interesting tests are purely cognitive tests of spatial memory and
to note that the majority of patients were able to im- mental rotation. These tests were performed seated,
prove their performance of navigation tasks over sev- without stimulating the individuals peripheral vestibu-
eral weeks to months after vestibular lesion, suggesting lar system. Yet as described, patients with vestibular
that the temporary impairment may have been due to loss performed worse on these tests than controls. With
vestibular imbalance and was not a long-term change respect to spatial navigation, patients with vestibular
in cognitive visuospatial reasoning. Moreover, spa- deficits had impairment in their spatial navigation abil-
tial navigation abilities may be improved by vestibu- ities particularly in the absence of visual cues. In many
lar rehabilitation, suggesting that compensatory strate- patients these deficits persisted for months after the
gies for navigation can be developed. Cohen delivered vestibular loss, long after vertigo symptoms subsided
gaze stabilization exercises to 53 patients with chronic and compensatory mechanisms set in.
vestibulopathy. She observed improvements in the sub- The vestibular system has been shown to activate a
jects path integration: they were less likely to veer off broad cortical network, including the insula, superior
of a learned path when their vision was occluded. Pa- temporal gyrus, hippocampus, and the inferior pari-
tients with vestibular loss may improve their spatial etal lobule, among other regions [43,134,151]. In ad-
navigation abilities through exercises that increase re- dition to receiving vestibular input, these brain regions
liance on proprioception and visual cues [37]. are part of a complex neural network for visuospa-
76 R.T. Bigelow and Y. Agrawal / Vestibular involvement in cognition: Visuospatial ability, attention, executive function, and memory

tial processing and memory [7,77,95,131]. The neuro- to younger individuals, and when participants reliance
anatomic correlates of the psychophysical tests of vi- on vestibular sensory information during the balance
suospatial ability described above are beginning to be tasks was increased (e.g. eyes closed on foam) [13,
established. Brandt observed decreased hippocampal 29,52,117,129,149]. Notably, performance on the bal-
volumes in association with impaired spatial memory ance and postural tasks, as measured by sway, did not
among BVD patients [25]. However, a similar study worsen when attention-demanding tasks were added,
on UVD patients found no changes in hippocampal suggesting that the brain prioritizes attentional re-
volumes or spatial memory, but did find smaller vol- sources to maintain balance at the expense of other
umes of the superior temporal gyrus [68]. While sam- cognitive tasks [13,29,52,117,129]. These studies per-
ple sizes in these studies were small, these findings formed on healthy individuals suggest that balance is
provide insight into the vestibulo-cortical connections indeed demanding of cognitive resources and is not
that are disrupted with vestibular loss, and that man- simply reflexive.
ifest as impairment in visuospatial ability and mental Similar dual-task testing was done examining bal-
representation of three-dimensional space. Further re- ance and posture and information processing in pa-
search examining the structural and functional neuro- tients with vestibular dysfunction. A study by An-
imaging characteristics of patients with vestibular dis- dersson et al. [5] looked at 24 patients with vertigo
ease would be valuable in providing insight into the and/or dizziness and 24 age- and sex-matched con-
mechanism of vestibular-related visuospatial impair- trols. Subjects completed a visuospatial mental task
ment. while undergoing concurrent posturography. Both pa-
tients and controls performance on the visuospatial
task worsened during eyes closed postural challenge,
3. Attention a test condition that increases reliance on vestibular
(and proprioceptive) input. Controls and patients with
Another dimension of cognitive function that ap- good baseline balance had worse postural control (in-
pears to be impacted by vestibular loss is attention. Ac- creased sway) when performing the mental task with
cording to Kahnemans Capacity Model of Attention, eyes closed. On the other hand, patients with poor
an individual has a set amount of attention and cogni- baseline balance actually had improvements in pos-
tive resources available to allocate to mental tasks [74]. ture (decreased sway) during mental tasks. Anders-
Individuals with vestibular dysfunction require addi- son suggested that this could be due to an enhanced
tional cognitive resources to maintain balance. This arousal in response to the mental task, although this
leads to increased competition for limited cognitive re- is inconsistent with Kahnemans model whereby to-
sources, and decreased cognitive power available for tal cognitive resources are not variable [5,74]. Simi-
other tasks. The validity of this theoretical model has lar results, with postural control improving as task dif-
been studied using the dual task testing paradigm, ficulty increases, have been observed in patients with
whereby participants are asked to undertake two tasks phobic postural vertigo, although the cause of this phe-
simultaneously. The participants performance on both nomenon is poorly understood [115]. Future research
tasks is measured relative to their performance on that varies the postural conditions, mental tasks, and
each task undertaken separately. Performance of tasks possibly levels of arousal and anxiety will be needed to
that require processing by similar cognitive networks provide insight into the mechanism behind the appar-
should decline in response to the increased cognitive ent dual task benefit.
demand of the concurrent task [1]. Studies of healthy Yardley studied performance on both spatial and
individuals have used the dual task paradigm to ex- non-spatial cognitive tasks in 48 patients with a va-
amine postural control and the vestibulo-ocular reflex riety of vestibular disorders and 24 healthy controls.
(VOR) and attention-demanding tasks such as asking Participants completed the cognitive tasks while stand-
the participant to press a button in response to auditory ing still or on a moving platform, and their postural
stimuli or counting backwards by three. These stud- sway was assessed. With increasing postural challenge
ies have consistently shown increases in response la- (platform movement), cognitive performance in terms
tency and/or decreases in accuracy on the attention- of timing and accuracy was impaired in both patients
demanding cognitive tests in the setting of concur- and controls, but postural sway remained stable. In this
rent postural or vestibular challenges. These differ- study, the patient group consistently performed worse
ences were accentuated in older individuals compared than the control group on cognitive tasks across postu-
R.T. Bigelow and Y. Agrawal / Vestibular involvement in cognition: Visuospatial ability, attention, executive function, and memory 77

Table 1
Summary of studies on visuospatial vestibular interactions
Year authors Participants controls Outcome measures Visuospatial ability Comments
2003 10 BVD patients 510 years virtual Morris Water Patients performed signifi- Significant 16.9% decrease in hippocam-
Schautzer status post vestibular neurec- Maze Task (vWMT) cantly worse on several pal volume in cases compared to con-
2005 Brandt tomy MRI Volumetry aspects of vWMT trols, although data was not collected
(Reporting on 10 age, sex, education Five of nine patients at or be- and/or not calculated for 3 of the 10 pa-
same data) matched controls low 25% on Corsi block test- tients and 1 of the 10 controls. Impaired
ing (visuospatial memory) memory in only 1 patient
2007 16 UVD patients 513 years vWMT Performance on vWMT only No differences in hippocampal volume
Hfner et al. status post acoustic neuroma MRI Volumetry slightly worse in R UVD pa- seen on MRI. Few differences between
resection tients, no different in L UVD groups, better matched controls than
Age, sex, education, and com- patients Schautzer and Brandt studies. Suggests
puter experience matched con- little or no effect of UVD on vWMT
trols (spatial memory)
2011 21 professional dancers and vWMT No significant difference in Vestibular experts had smaller anterior
Hfner et al. slack liners (vestibular ex- MRI Volumetry vWMT performance between hippocampal volume and larger posterior
perts) vestibular experts and controls hippocampal volume compared to con-
Age, sex, education, computer trols. Authors speculate this is due to
experience, athletic experi- destabilizing vestibular inputs being de-
ence (non-vestibular) matched emphasized (smaller anterior hippocam-
controls pus) in favor of using visual cues (larger
posterior hippocampus)
2008 50 compensated UVD Corsi block test Patients performed worse than Worse visual memory and navigation,
Guidetti et al. patients Walking navigation (eyes controls on Corsi block test of but controls not education matched and
50 age and sex matched con- open, closed in triangle, visual memory. Patients also recruited exclusively from healthcare
trols recruited from healthcare circle, square) performed worse on walking providers
staff navigation tasks
1999 8 Mnires disease patients Walking navigation Patients performed worse on Patients were able to compensate for
Pruch et al. (MD) before and after UVD (blindfolded, reproduc- navigation tasks one week, but vestibular loss within one month of
surgery ing paths, reversing not one month after surgery surgery
6 age and education matched paths, making shortcuts)
2000 Cohen 31 Acoustic neuroma (AN) Walking navigation (eyes Walking navigation impaired Patients compensate for navigational
patients pre and post op open, eyes closed walk- in CV patients and imme- effects of vestibular loss within the
55 chronic peripheral vestibu- ing a straight course) diately post-op patients, im- first month. AN/CV patients performed
lar impaired patients (CV) provement in surgical patients much worse with eyes closed, indicating
24 controls by three weeks post-op vestibular input is used for mental path
2004 9 Mnires disease patients Walking navigation (eyes Walking navigation impaired Partial compensation within one month,
Borel et al. before and after vestibular open, eyes closed walk- after surgery, improvement in with residual deficits when vestibular in-
neurectomy ing a straight course) eyes open but not eyes closed put is required for path integration (eyes
10 healthy controls navigation by three months closed)
2011 8 BVD patients Mental rotation of BVD patients worse at men- BVD is sufficient to cause difficulties in
Grabherr et al. 15 UVD patients objects and humans tal rotation than UVD and con- mental rotation, while UVD is not
14 age matched controls trols
2013 14 BPPV patients Mental rotation of self BPPV and VN patients per- Patients average age was 58, compared
Candidi et al. 9 vestibular neuritis patients and human figure formed worse than controls on to 43 of controls
(VN) rotation tasks
16 healthy volunteers
2013 118 self reported dizzy indi- Mental rotation Dizzy participants significant- Patients were recruited from the internet
Wallwork et al. viduals from a large internet ly slower than controls at men- and self-reported dizziness, which may
based survey tal rotation tasks or may not be due to vestibular pathology
Age, gender, and pain matched
2011 15 Mnires disease patients Mental rotation, scanning BVD and post-op patients BVD and acute UVD cause impairments
Pruch et al. pre and post vestibular nerve of environment were impaired in mental rota- in visuospatial ability, surgical UVD pa-
destruction surgery tion and scanning of environ- tients can compensate with time
7 BVD patients on average 3.7 ments
years after vestibular loss
12 healthy education, age, sex
matched controls

ral conditions. Performance was similarly affected on studies have also observed greater impairments in in-
spatial and non-spatial cognitive tasks, suggesting the formation processing and other cognitive tasks (such as
impaired cognitive performance is not due to compe- counting backwards by three), during concurrent bal-
tition for spatial processing resources, but is instead ance tasks in patients with vestibular disorders (such
due to general capacity limitations, and is proportional as surgical UVD, vestibular neuritis) relative to con-
to the attentional demands of both tasks [151]. Other trols [96,118,120,152].
78 R.T. Bigelow and Y. Agrawal / Vestibular involvement in cognition: Visuospatial ability, attention, executive function, and memory

In a study by Talkowski, 16 surgical UVD patients ecutive function. These subjects with vertigo also had
with no residual dizziness or imbalance were com- lower scores on the arithmetic (executive function) and
pared to healthy age- and sex-matched controls. Sub- digit span (memory, attention) portions of the Wechsler
jects completed an auditory reaction time (RT) task Adult Intelligence Scale [119]. In another study that
requiring information processing (respond with right reviewed 33 cases of gentamicin vestibulotoxicity, 22
or left hand depending on stimulus) during vestibular patients (66%) reported cognitive dysfunction, which
(rotational chair), visual (fixation on moving laser), or included short-term memory loss, concentration prob-
combined vestibular-visual stimulation. Both patients lems, difficulty with word retrieval, reading problems,
and controls had increases in RT during vestibular and inability to prioritize tasks [19]. While these stud-
stimulation and during ocular pursuit. Patients showed ies are suggestive of executive function and memory
greater increases in RT during rotation than did con- impairments, the field of vestibular cognition would
trols. The prolongation of reaction times in response to benefit from more rigorous research with well-defined
vestibular stimulation suggests that the VOR, a reflex- groups, matched controls, and standardized memory
ive behavior, can interact with and disrupt higher level and executive function tests.
cognitive processing [128]. Many authors have suggested that a functional
A summary of the major studies can be found in Ta- vestibular system is important for normal cognitive de-
ble 2. The majority of studies showed that posture and velopment and learning. A study performed by Franco
balance were similar between patients and controls, but and Panhoca in 2008 found that children with poor
performance on cognitive tasks were not. This seems to school performance were far more likely to have
be an adaptive response, with priority given to divert- concurrent vestibular dysfunction compared to their
ing attention to prevent falls and maintain safety, at the peers [51]. Similar data were found in studies per-
expense of other cognitive tasks. An orientation-first formed in the 1970s and 1980s reported in the learn-
principal, that orientation and posture are prioritized ing disability literature. Many studies found vestibulo-
and may draw attentional resources, has been proposed cerebellar function was decreased in children with
previously [60]. learning disabilities, particularly dyslexia, compared
to normal controls [8,31,82,97100,140]. However,
these deficits in vestibular function were not consistent
4. Associations between vestibular, executive, and across all studies [28,110,111]. These observed associ-
memory function ations between poor school performance and vestibu-
lar dysfunction could be due to problems with oculo-
Relationships between vestibular function, execu- motor function, leading to impaired reading ability, in-
tive function and memory have also been reported in a creased attentional demands of maintaining balance, as
number of studies dating back to the 1970s, but most reviewed earlier, a concurrent emotional disturbance
of these early studies suffered from methodologic lim- (which could be related to vestibular symptoms), or an-
itations. other insult that led to both cognitive and vestibular
In 1989 Grimm et al. reported on 102 patients dysfunction [27,144].
with perilymph fistula syndrome (a vestibular disease
caused by minor head trauma), of whom a surprising
85% reported memory loss and 80% reported confu- 5. Effects of vestibular manipulation on cognition
sion. A subset of these patients underwent cognitive
testing, which revealed deficits in memory (digit sym- We have described some of the research that has
bol, auditory recall, paired associate learning tests), vi- been done linking vestibular disease to cognitive dys-
suospatial ability (block design, picture arrangement, function, but what happens to cognitive function when
paired associate learning, trail making tests), and exec- the vestibular system is experimentally altered? Here
utive function (digit symbol, picture arrangement, trail we will review the effects of microgravity and vestibu-
making tests) [61]. However, this study was limited lar stimulation on cognitive function.
by potential sampling bias in the cognitive tests and
confounding head injury. A study by Risey and Briner 5.1. Microgravity and cognitive function
in 1990 found that subjects with vertigo skipped and
displaced whole sequences of numbers when count- The otoconia dependent portions of the vestibular
ing backwards by two, suggesting impairment of ex- system, the utricle and saccule, both require linear ac-
R.T. Bigelow and Y. Agrawal / Vestibular involvement in cognition: Visuospatial ability, attention, executive function, and memory 79

Table 2
Summary of studies on attention vestibular interactions
Year authors Participants controls Outcome measures Attention Comments
1997 48 individuals aged 2060 Dual task balance and at- Reaction time increased as As sensory inputs decrease and reliance
Barin et al. tention demanding cognitive sensory input decreased on vestibular input for balance increases
1993 8 young and 9 old partici- Dual task postural and reac- Elderly performed worse as re- Postural task became increasingly diffi-
Teasdale et al. pants tion time test liance on vestibular system for cult in elderly as sensory inputs were re-
balance increased moved
1999 25 healthy individuals Dual task of backward digit Worse performance during Worse performance on digit recall during
Brown et al. recall during postural chal- postural challenge postural challenge
2002 19 younger adults Dual task reaction time and Worse performance on digit Postural challenge causes a brief and
Redfern et al. (mean 23 years old) postural challenge recall during postural chal- temporary increased reaction time, indi-
19 older adults lenge, worse with age cating that maintaining balance and pos-
(mean 79 years old) ture is cognitively demanding
2003 20 young subjects Dual task information pro- Vestibular stimulation caused During off vertical axis rotation (stimu-
Furman et al. (mean 23 years). cessing during combinations increased reaction times in the lating otolith organs) increased reaction
20 older subjects of vestibular and visual dark, reaction time worse with time in younger, but not older subjects,
(mean 69 years) stimuli age possibly due to declining otolith function
with age
1998 24 patients with vertigo Dual task visuospatial men- Patients and controls perfor- Patients with poor baseline balance ac-
Andersson et al. and/or dizziness tal task and posturography med worse on cognitive tasks tually improved their balance during in-
24 age and sex matched con- during postural challenge creased cognitive load. Possibly due to
trols enhanced arousal during the stress of dif-
ficult dual tasks or due to abandonment
of maladaptive balance strategies during
distraction by mental tasks
2001 48 patients with mild chr- Dual task spatial and non- Vestibular patients had lower Worse performance overall but similar
Yardley onic partially compensated spatial mental tasks with accuracy and longer reaction declines with postural challenge suggests
vestibular disorders postural challenge times compared to controls, a global decrease in baseline mental task
24 healthy controls both groups performance function in vestibular patients
worsened similarly during
postural challenge
2002 20 patients with vertigo due Dual task reaction time and There was only weak evi- Authors conclude that disoriented indi-
Yardley to vestibular imbalance, 36 orientation, arithmetic and dence for interference between viduals need to devote substantial cog-
healthy controls orientation performance and orientation nitive resources toward orientation, lead-
in healthy individuals. Disori- ing to worse performance on arithmetic
ented individuals had worse and other cognitive tasks
performance on arithmetic
2004 15 compensated UVD Dual task information UVD patients had slower re- Compensated UVD patients have an in-
Redfern et al. patients status post nerve processing auditory reac- action times across all condi- creased baseline cognitive requirement
resection. tion times during postural tions, both groups increased to maintain balance and posture
Age and gender matched challenge reaction time similarly with
controls postural challenge
2005 16 compensated UVD Dual task study of reaction UVD patients had greater in- Interference between vestibular-ocular
Talkowski et al. patients time and combinations of creases in reaction time during processing and reaction time suggests
Healthy age and sex vestibular and visual stimuli vestibular stimulation com- greater cognitive demands for orienta-
matched controls pared to controls tion in compensated UVD patients com-
pared to controls
2010 14 vestibular neuritis Dual task gait and counting Vestibular patients performed Attentional demands of gait task led
Nascimbeni et patients backward by 3 significantly worse than con- to worse performance on cognitive
al. 17 healthy controls trols on cognitive task while math/attentional task in vestibular
walking and balancing patients
2011 15 BPPV patients Dual task combinations of Patients were more impaired Vestibular patients require more atten-
Roberts et al. 15 patients with other locomotion, naming task, than controls in their ability to tional resources for locomotion than con-
vestibular disease motor task walk in a straight line as cog- trols, particularly when visual cues are
15 controls recruited from nitive tasks were added absent
lab staff

celeration to function. Gravity, the major source of lin- porary reduction of otolith stimulation on a variety of
ear acceleration on earth, is largely absent in a mi- tasks.
crogravity environment such as in space. Semicircu- Astronauts have anecdotally reported decreases in
lar canal function, on the other hand, does not rely on cognitive and motor function while in space, collec-
gravitational forces and remains functional even in a tively described as mental viscosity or the space
microgravity environment. Space exploration has pro- stupids [35]. Studies of cognitive function in micro-
vided a unique testing environment of the effect of tem- gravity have inconsistently found impairments in ex-
80 R.T. Bigelow and Y. Agrawal / Vestibular involvement in cognition: Visuospatial ability, attention, executive function, and memory

ecutive function (judgement, arithmetic), memory, and iology of Sopite syndrome is unknown, although it
language (i.e. grammatical reasoning), but more con- has been attributed to visual-vestibular mismatch. One
sistently found deficits in visuospatial ability (track- study found changes in cortisol and melatonin in re-
ing, spatial mental representation) and attention (i.e. sponse to conflicting streams of sensory information
dual-task performance) [20,38,57,8688,139], for re- regarding orientation, suggesting that hormonal and/or
views see [34,50,58,89]. These studies of micrograv- neurotransmitter changes are responsible for the symp-
ity corroborate the studies of vestibular disorders re- toms of Sopite syndrome [53,78].
viewed above which suggest that balance and orien-
tation require additional attention when vestibular in- 5.2. Vestibular stimulation
formation is altered. Astronauts impairments were
particularly notable during transition periods includ- Several studies have experimentally stimulated the
ing the first three weeks in space and the first two vestibular system with physical motion and tested the
weeks back on earth [50,89]. This temporal pattern effect of this vestibular stimulation on cognitive func-
of acute cognitive deficit followed by subsequent im- tion. Van Elk found reaction times on mental rotation
provement parallels the cognitive problems and im- tasks improved when the image was mentally rotated
provements seen in patients soon after vestibular le- in the same direction as physical rotation [133]. Sim-
sioning. These findings are based on small studies but ilarly, Wang et al. found the latency of characteristic
EEG patterns in an auditory attention task decreased in
they warranted concern significant enough for NASA
response to angular rotation, but increased in response
to fund an ongoing larger, longitudinal, comprehensive
to linear acceleration [137]. The cause for this differ-
study of neurocognitive performance before, during,
ence in cognitive speed between rotation and linear ac-
and after space flight [76].
celeration is unclear, but it may indicate that linear ac-
The value of these experiments, summarized in Ta-
celeration is more disorienting than rotation, and there-
ble 3, is that they provide a healthy population in which
fore diverts more attention away from other cognitive
the effects of temporary reduction of otolith input and
tasks. These provide further evidence that cognitive
the resulting impairment in vertical orientation can be
function in specific tasks related to attention and visu-
studied. While the type of experiments and the out-
ospatial ability may actually improve with horizontal
come measures differ from those used in studies of semi-circular canal stimulation, but that vertical dis-
vestibular patients, both the astronauts in space with orientation due to linear acceleration is more profound
reduced otolith input and the vestibularly impaired pa- and leads to cognitive slowing.
tients appear to have deficits in visuospatial ability and The vestibular system can also be stimulated exper-
attention. These convergent data suggest that the cog- imentally using several different techniques, provid-
nitive deficits seen in vestibular patients are likely due ing yet another way of testing the effects of abnormal
to the lack of vestibular input, not other potential con- vestibular function on cognition. In caloric vestibular
founding factors like concurrent illness or adverse ef- stimulation (CVS) cold and/or warm water is infused
fects of surgery/anesthesia. However, the results seen into the external auditory canal; the change in tempera-
in astronauts may not be externally valid. Microgravity ture leads to a change in density and subsequent motion
does impair otolith function, which may be a factor in of the endolymphatic fluid of the horizontal semicircu-
the cognitive impairments seen. But, the cognitive im- lar canal, leading to perceived head motion in the plane
pairments may also be partly due to other complex and of the canal and nystagmus [14]. Galvanic vestibular
unique circumstances of space travel, such as stress or stimulation (GVS) is a technique in which electrodes
emotional disturbance, which has been described in a placed on the mastoid bones are used to stimulate the
number of astronauts. vestibular afferent nerve [132]. This stimulation simu-
These impairments in attention and other domains of lates excitation (or inhibition) of all three semicircular
cognitive function seen when vestibular input is altered canals and two otoliths simultaneously, and typically
(both in space and among the vestibularly-impaired) results in an eye movement response that has horizon-
may be related to Sopite syndrome, a condition simi- tal and torsional components [38,71,138]. Since these
lar to motion sickness. During long periods of move- stimuli affect different components of the vestibular
ment some individuals experience substantial fatigue system and may be inconsistently applied, it is difficult
and activity limitation. These symptoms of Sopite syn- to draw conclusions from this literature.
drome can occur in relation to or independent from Several studies of caloric stimulation have shown
other symptoms of motion sickness. The pathophys- mixed changes in cognitive function. Two studies
R.T. Bigelow and Y. Agrawal / Vestibular involvement in cognition: Visuospatial ability, attention, executive function, and memory 81

Table 3
Summary of studies on cognitive function in microgravity
Year Participants Outcome measures Perceptual/ Attention Comments
authors visuospatial ability
1993 1 astronaut Cognitive tests Impaired tracking Psychomotor processes/spatial
Manzey et al. before, during, and during space flight tracking ability may be im-
after spaceflight paired in microgravity a
unique environment in which
otolith, but not semicircular
canal function is impaired
1995 1 astronaut Cognitive tests Impaired tracking Impairments in dual Psychomotor processes/spatial
Manzey et al. before, during, and during space flight task performance of tracking ability may be im-
after spaceflight cognitive tasks during paired in microgravity
space flight
1998 1 astronaut Cognitive tests Impaired tracking Impairments in dual No impairments in grammati-
Manzey before, during, and during first week of task performance cal reasoning during space
after spaceflight space flight during first month, flight
but not subsequent
months, of space
1997 5 astronauts Pointing to targets Greater errors in abil- Authors concluded that errors
Watt with eyes open and ity to point to targets in microgravity due to lack of
closed before and in space than on the knowledge of target, not limb
after spaceflight ground position, indicating impaired
internal representation of three
dimensional space in micro-
2010 3 astronauts Cognitive tests Impaired tracking Dual task on rhythm
Bock et al. before, during, and during space flight, production and visu-
after spaceflight mental rotation im- ospatial orientation
paired during dual worse than regular
task paradigm choice reaction time
2007 8 healthy Mental rotation Responses on egocen- Rotations of body parts more
Grabherr et al. volunteers during microgravity tric rotation delayed delayed than responses to
simulating parabolic and less accurate dur- whole-body rotations
flight ing microgravity
2013 6 healthy Mental rotation No impairments in ro- No impairments seen on letter,
Dalecki et al. volunteers during microgravity tation seen during mi- hand, or scene rotations during
simulating parabolic crogravity simulated microgravity sub-
flight jects were provided visual and
tactile vertical reference frames

found improvements in visuospatial ability (mental tional brain imaging are not entirely consistent across
rotation, spatial memory) in response to unilateral studies and could be used to justify either conclu-
CVS [9,47], while another found no effect on a quanti- sion [9,15,22,90,126,143]. The studies timing of stim-
tative visual-imagery recognition task [4]. But a study ulation relative to cognitive tests, cognitive tests used
by Mast et al. in 2006 with fewer participants found as outcomes, and exact method of caloric stimulation
CVS did not change performance on low-imagery cog- differed, which could explain the seemingly contradic-
nitive tasks (deciding if a statement was true or false) tory results.
and, contrary to the previous studies, CVS worsened Sub-threshold GVS involves low-power current that
performance on high imagery tasks (mental rotation, is insufficient to induce nystagmus or motion per-
memory of an image). These authors suggested the ception. Small studies and case reports using sub-
changes (both improvement and impairments) in cog- threshold GVS suggest an improvement in visuospa-
nitive performance could be explained by changes in tial ability (visual memory, perceptual deficits) with
cerebral blood flow that has been seen in functional sub-threshold GVS. However, the largest and most rig-
imaging during CVS, but the changes seen in func- orous study published by Dilda et al. in 2012 found
82 R.T. Bigelow and Y. Agrawal / Vestibular involvement in cognition: Visuospatial ability, attention, executive function, and memory

Table 4
Summary of studies on cognitive function and vestibular stimulation
Year authors Participants controls Outcome measures Perceptual/ Memory Comments
visuospatial ability
2005 1 patient with brain Facial recognition during Facial recognition improved Small sample size of 1, uncertain
Wilkinson injury leading to in- sub-threshold GVS with GVS when current alter- physiologic effect of sub-threshold
et al. ability to recognize nated between testing blocks GVS
or remember faces
2008 12 participants, Facial recognition with Sub-threshold GVS improved Uncertain physiologic effect of
Wilkinson 12 controls sub-threshold GVS and participants reaction times sub-threshold GVS
et al. sham with no changes in accuracy
2010 1 patient with brain Rey-Osterrieth complex During sub-threshold GVS the Small sample size of 1, uncertain
Wilkinson injury leading to in- figure copy task with sub- accuracy of copied figures was physiologic effect of sub-threshold
et al. ability to accurately threshold GVS and sham improved GVS, possibility of learning ef-
copy figures fects
2012 120 healthy Cognitive tests Supra-threshold GVS wors- Supra-threshold No effects seen in sub-threshold
Dilda et al. volunteers before, during, and ened performance on mental GVS worsened GVS. Impaired performance dur-
after randomization to rotation and short term spatial performance on ing supra-threshold GVS on men-
sham, sub-threshold, or memory short term spatial tal rotation and spatial memory
supra-threshold GVS memory may be due to disorientation dur-
ing stimulation
2014 60 healthy women Performance on Corsi Improvement in Corsi block Improvement in Authors suggest that effect may be
Ghaheri et al. block testing during performance during sub- Corsi block per- due to inherent learning during the
sub-threshold GVS threshold GVS formance during course of the study
sub-threshold GVS
2008 11 healthy right Mental rotations during Mental rotation slower during Effect of GVS on mental rotation
Lenggenhager handed volunteers left, right, or sham GVS right sided GVS compared to was more pronounced during ego-
et al. sham or left sided centric rather than object based ro-
2001 108 healthy right Object and verbal mem- Object location memory im- Verbal and spatial Effects on verbal (left brained)
Bchtold et al. handed male univer- ory tasks with right, left, proved with left, but not right memory improved and spatial (right brained) abilities
sity students or sham caloric stimula- or sham caloric stimulation with caloric stimu- were specific for the hemisphere of
tion during learning lation the brain activated during calorics
phase (primarily contralateral to the ear
2012 14 healthy right Mental rotation of Mental rotations of humans,
Falconer and handed adults objects and humans with but not objects, was improved
Mast caloric stimulation with caloric vestibular stimu-
1994 11 healthy subjects Visual-imagery task with No change observed on im-
Alway et al. unilateral caloric stimula- agery task with caloric stimu-
tion lation
2006 8 healthy volunteers Performance on visual Visual imagery and mental Caloric stimulation influenced
Mast et al. imagery, mental rotation, rotation was impaired during visuospatial tasks (imagery and
and low imagery task calorics compared to sham mental rotation) but did not alter
with caloric stimulation stimulation performance on low imagery task
and sham (true-false statements)
2004 33 healthy Event related potentials Selective improvement (shorter la-
Wang et al. volunteers (ERP) on EEG associ- tency) during semicircular canal
ated with auditory atten- stimulation, selective worsening
tion task during angular (longer latency) during otolith
and linear acceleration stimulation. Vestibular stimulation
appears to have an effect on atten-
2014 18 healthy right Mental rotation of human Reaction times improved Physical rotation fascilitated reac-
van Elk et al. handed volunteers figure with and without when actual body rotation tion times on human figure men-
yaw axis rotation direction was congruent with tal rotation in the same direction,
human figure mental rotation suggesting vestibular input primes
direction the cortical network responsible
for mental rotation

no effect [42,53,145147]. Again, these authors sug- the specific brain regions activated vary across stud-
gest these results are due to altered cerebral blood flow ies [15,30,46,83,84,126]. The results could be an arti-
in response to vestibular stimulation [145147]. While fact of small sample sizes or, as Ghaheri et al. suggest,
signal changes indicative of increased metabolic ac- related to inherent learning of the cognitive tasks that
tivity have been seen on fMRI and PET with supra- is due to repeated measurement and unrelated to stim-
threshold GVS, to date no functional imaging studies ulation [54].
have been performed using sub-threshold GVS, and Supra-threshold GVS, on the other hand, has con-
R.T. Bigelow and Y. Agrawal / Vestibular involvement in cognition: Visuospatial ability, attention, executive function, and memory 83

Fig. 1. Conceptual model proposing mechanism of cognitive dysfunction due to the vestibular system.

sistently been shown to have a detrimental effect on ble that vestibular stimulation during learning may
visuospatial ability (mental rotation, perspective tak- improve later performance as shown by Bchtold et
ing, match to sample) [42,80]. Supra-threshold GVS al. [9]. However, stimulation during recall or other cog-
may worsen cognitive performance indirectly by wors- nitive tasks may worsen performance, depending on
ening visual stability, causing nystagmus or oscillop- the type of task performed and side of vestibular ac-
sia. It may also increase cognitive load and use of at- tivation [42,80,90]. Despite the use of sham and con-
tentional resources by forcing the brain to reconcile the trol stimulations, it is also possible that the cognitive
conflicting vestibular, visual, and proprioceptive sen- changes seen in GVS and CVS are due to some other
sory inputs in order to maintain orientation. effect of the stimulation, such as the sensations pro-
In case reports and small case series caloric stimu- duced by electrical current or temperature changes.
lation has been shown to have a diverse range of other Future research into the cognitive effects (both im-
cognitive/psychiatric effects, including changes in nu- provements and impairments) of vestibular stimula-
mber generation, purchase decisions, optimism, mood, tion would benefit from careful selection of stimula-
manic delusions, somatoparaphrenic delusions (de- tion modality and cognitive tests used, as suggested by
nial of ownership of body parts), visual neglect, pain Palla and Lenggenhager [102].
perception, phantom limb and body spatial percep-
tion [18,23,24,33,48,49,64,72,73,78,81,85,9193,112,
113,116,121,148]. These reports suggest that the vesti- 6. Other factors that may influence cognitive
bular system has a broad and sometimes profound ef- vestibular interactions
fect on cognition and emotion, but the sample sizes are
all small and the literature would benefit from more Thus far we have reviewed evidence that vestibular
rigorous, larger studies of these reported effects. function is associated with the cognitive functions of
These studies on vestibular stimulation, summarized visuospatial ability, attention, executive function, and
in Table 4, suggest that vestibular stimulation has an memory. A substantial body of literature also exists
effect on cognitive function, but the exact effect dif- linking vestibular function to emotional states and af-
fers from study to study. One complicating factor is fective disorders. A thorough review of the topic is be-
the different portions of the vestibular system stimu- yond the scope of this paper. However,in brief, there
lated by the different modalities. The timing of vestibu- appear to be complex bidirectional interactions be-
lar stimulation may also be important. It is possi- tween vertigo and affective disorders, such that vertigo
84 R.T. Bigelow and Y. Agrawal / Vestibular involvement in cognition: Visuospatial ability, attention, executive function, and memory

worsens affective symptoms, and emotional states can provide valuable insights. As the population ages in
have an effect on the perception of vertigo and disequi- the United States and globally, the prevalence of age-
librium [16,125,150]. Interested readers are directed to related vestibular dysfunction will likely increase. The
reviews by Balaban et al. from 2011 and Gurvich et al. impact of this sensory decline on cognitive function,
from 2013 for further reading [10,63]. activities of daily living, and development of demen-
Another emerging topic that is important for fur- tia needs to be defined, with the potential goal of de-
ther study is the effect of age-related vestibular de- veloping vestibular rehabilitation or cognitive training
cline on cognitive function. Numerous studies have programs to limit the functional impact of age-related
shown vestibular function declines with age, but the vestibular loss.
impact of this decline on physical and cognitive func-
tion has not been well-characterized [2,3,11,12,26,101,
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