Inner Ear Anatomy

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This page gives you the fundamentals of anatomy. It is important for you to know this before you try to understand vestibular physiology.

Anatomy

The inner ear is a complex three dimensional shape with semicircular canals, dilations called the utricle and saccule and a spiral portion known as the cochlea. All of these organs are housed inside a bony shell known as the bony labyrinth and this is within the temporal bone. The cochlea is the site where sound is transformed into neural energy for hearing. The rest is concerned with balance.

The Right Membranous Labyrinth

This diagram shows the membranous labyrinth and it is this that contains the neuroepithelia that detect motion and sound.

 

The bony and membranous labyrinths are separated by a fluid filled space and this is shown diagrammatically below.

Despite the complexity of it's shape it can be simplified as in the following diagram.

The yellow central portion in the diagram represents the membranous labyrinth. It contains endolymph and all of the neuroepithelia required for hearing and balance. Surrounding this membranous labyrinth is a fluid filled space. This space separates the membranous labyrinth from the bony labyrinth. The space is filled with perilymph and can be considered to act in the same way as CSF - as a cushion for the delicate structures it protects.

The endolymph is produced by 'Dark Cells' within the membranous labyrinth. The dilated portion in this diagram represents the endolymphatic sac (ES). This is thought to regulate the volume and composition of the endolymph although how this is done is open to speculation.

If the composition or specific gravity of the endolymph is changed as in Ménière's Syndrome or alcohol consumption, the function of the balance and hearing epithelia within it are affected. Both Ménière's and Alcohol intoxication are explained in other tutorials.

The Right Membranous Labyrinth

The inner ear is supplied by the Superior Vestibular Nerve, the Inferior Vestibular Nerve and the Cochlear Nerve. All of these nerves travel from the inner ear towards the brain stem within the Internal Acoustic Meatus. Along with these in the IAM is the Facial Nerve and the vascular supply.

The Right Membranous Labyrinth - Nerve supply

In this diagram we visualise the inner ear. The cochlea is supplied by the cochlear nerve. The utricle, some of the saccule, the lateral semicircular canal and the superior semicircular canal are all supplied by the superior vestibular nerve. 

 

The posterior canal is supplied via the inferior vestibular nerve. This nerve also supplies part of the saccule.

The Right Membranous Labyrinth - Blood supply

The diagram below outlines the blood supply for the inner ear. The anterior vestibular artery supplies the utricle, superior canal and the lateral canal. The posterior vestibular artery supplies the posterior canal. Both of these are branches of the common cochlear artery which ultimately is derived from the anterior inferior cerebellar artery.

Internal Acoustic Meatus

The IAM is the bony conduit in the petrous temporal bone through which the vestibular, cochlear and facial nerves leave the posterior fossa. Note that there are two vestibular nerves on each side, a larger superior and a smaller inferior nerve. The diagram shows the right IAM seen from the pons.

The Right Internal Acoustic Meatus

In the diagram above imagine standing at the brainstem and looking outwards towards the Right ear.

S= superior, I= inferior, A= anterior, P= posterior.

VII is the Facial Nerve, C is the Cochlear Nerve,

SV is the Superior Vestibular Nerve, and IV is the Inferior Vestibular Nerve.

 

The vertical line represents Bill's Bar while the horizontal line is the Crista Falciformis. The Nervus Intermedius travels with the Facial Nerve and is not shown.