Our eyes are constantly making saccades, or little jumps. Yet the world appears to us as a smooth whole. Somehow, the brain's visual system "knows" where the eyes are about to move and is able to adjust for that movement. In a paper published online this week in Nature, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the National Eye Institute (NEI) for the first time provide a circuit-level explanation as to why.
"This is a classic problem in neuroscience," says Marc Sommer, assistant professor of neuroscience at Pitt, who coauthored the paper with Robert Wurtz, senior investigator at NEI, one of the National Institutes of Health. "People have been searching for a circuit to accomplish this stability for the last 50 years, and we think we've made good progress with this study."
In 1950, Nobel laureate Roger Sperry hypothesized that when the brain commands the eyes to move, it also sends a corollary discharge, or internal copy, of that command to the visual system. Sommer and Wurtz showed in a 2002 Science paper that a pathway from brainstem to frontal cortex conveys a corollary discharge signal in the brains of monkeys. They suggested that this pathway might cause visual neurons of the cortex to suddenly shift their receptive field--their window on the world--just before a saccade. Such neurons with shifting receptive fields had been discovered by Pitt Professor of Neuroscience Carol Colby and colleagues in 1992.
In their current paper, which will be published in the Nov. 16 print edition of Nature, Sommer and Wurtz completed the circuit. They showed that the receptive fields in cortex are shifted because of the corollary discharge from the brainstem. To do this, they exploited the fact that the signals are relayed via the thalamus, a crucial intermediary. By knocking out the relay neurons, they interrupted the pathway. They found that receptive field shifts were curtailed by more than half.
A similar circuit is likely to exist in human brains, the researchers say. With this study, Sommer and Wurtz also provide a framework for studying corollary discharge in other sensory systems, such as hearing: Even when you move your head around, you still hear sounds around you as coming from the same place.
In future studies, Sommer and his graduate students at Pitt will perform the first direct test of the visual stability hypothesis. To determine whether shifting receptive fields are responsible for visual stability, the shifts will be disrupted in monkeys trained to detect visual motion. The monkeys could then report whether their world appears to be moving around abnormally as eye movements are made.
This research was supported by the NEI.