Mechanical properties and motion of the cupula of the human semicircular canal

Pierre Selva, Charles M. Oman, Howard A. Stone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


The mathematical model for the dynamics of the cupula-endolymph system of the inner ear semicircular canal, as elaborated by numerous investigators, remains a foundational tool in all of vestibular physiology. Most models represent the cupula as a linear spring-like element of stiffness K=ΔP/ΔV, where ΔV is the volume displaced upon application of a pressure difference ΔP. The parameter K directly influences the long time constant of the cupula-endolymph system. Given estimates of K based on experiments, we use thick and thin bending membrane theory, and also finite-element simulations based on more realistic cupula morphologies, to estimate the human cupula's Young's modulus E ≈ 5.4 Pa. We show that for a model morphology, thick bending membrane theory and finite-element predictions are in good agreement, and conclude that the morphology of the attachment of the cupula to the slope of the crista should not greatly influence the volume displacement. We note, however, that other biological materials with very low E are hydrogels that have significant viscoelastic properties. Experiments to directly measure E and investigate potential viscoelastic behavior ultimately may be needed. In addition, based on experimental images we study two other different shapes for the cupula and quantify their impact on the deflection of the cupula. We also use a three-dimensional finite-element model to analyze both the shear strain distribution and its time evolution near the sensory epithelium. We conclude that stimulation of sensory hair cells probably begins at the centre of the crista and spreads toward the periphery of the cupula and down the sides of the crista. Thus, spatio-temporal variations in the shearing stimulus are predicted to impact subsequent transduction and encoding. Finally, modeling the fluid-filled vertical channels believed to lie within the cupula, we investigate the impact of different tube diameters on the transverse displacement field. We show that, for the assumed diameters and grid spacing, cupula displacements should be highly sensitive to the diameter of the tubes. Experiments to verify the existence of cupular channels and accurately measure their diameter and spacing are needed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)95-110
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Vestibular Research: Equilibrium and Orientation
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Medicine


  • Cupula
  • Finite-element model
  • Semicircular canal
  • Solid mechanics
  • Young's modulus


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