Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Involuntary Maybe, but Certainly Not Random

Our eyes are in constant motion. Even when we attempt to stare straight at a stationary target, our eyes jump and jiggle imperceptibly.

Although these unconscious flicks, also known as microsaccades, had long been considered mere “motor noise,” researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies found that they are instead actively controlled by the same brain region that instructs our eyes to scan the lines in a newspaper or follow a moving object.

Their findings, published in the Feb. 13, 2009 issue of Science, provide new insights into the importance of these movements in generating normal vision.

“For several decades, scientists have debated the function, if any, of these fixational eye movements,” says Richard Krauzlis, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Salk Institute’s Systems Neurobiology Laboratory, who led the current study. “Our results show that the neural circuit for generating microsaccades is essentially the same as that for voluntary eye movements. This implies that they are caused by the minute fluctuations in how the brain represents where you want to look.”

“There was a lot of past effort to figure out what fixational eye movements contribute to our vision,” adds lead author Ziad Hafed, Ph.D., Sloan-Swartz Fellow in the Systems Neurobiology Laboratory, “but nobody had looked at the neural mechanism that generates these movements. Without such knowledge, one could only go so far in evaluating microsaccades’ significance and why they actually exist.”

Wondering whether the command center responsible for generating fixational eye movements resides within the same brain structure that is in charge of initiating and directing large voluntary eye movements, Hafed decided to measure neural activity in the superior colliculus before and during microsaccades.

He not only discovered that the superior colliculus is an integral part of the neural mechanism that controls microsaccades, but he also found that individual neurons in the superior colliculus are highly specific about which particular microsaccade directions and amplitudes they command—whether they be, say, rightward or downward or even oblique movements. “Data from the population of neurons we analyzed shows that the superior colliculus contains a remarkably precise representation of amplitude and direction down to the tiniest of eye movements,” says Krauzlis.

The Salk researchers, in collaboration with Laurent Goffart, Ph.D., a professor at the Institut de Neurosciences Cognitives de la Méditerranée in Marseille, France, also temporarily inactivated a subset of superior colliculus neurons and analyzed the resulting changes in microsaccades. They discovered that a fully functional superior colliculus is required to generate normal microsaccades.

“Because images on the retina fade from view if they are perfectly stabilized, the active generation of fixational eye movements by the central nervous system allows these movements to constantly shift the scene ever so slightly, thus refreshing the images on our retina and preventing us from going ‘blind,’” explains Hafed. “When images begin to fade, the uncertainty about where to look increases the fluctuations in superior colliculus activity, triggering a microsaccade,” adds Krauzlis.

Microsaccades may, however, do more than prevent the world around us from fading when we stare at it for too long. Even when our gaze is fixed, our attention can shift to an object at the periphery that attracts our interest. In an earlier study, Hafed discovered that although we may avert our eyes from an attractive man or woman, microsaccades will reveal such objects of attraction because their direction is biased toward objects to which we are unconsciously attracted.

By showing in the current study that the superior colliculus is involved in generating microsaccades, Hafed and his colleagues could now explain why this happens. “The superior colliculus is a major determinant of what is behaviorally relevant in our visual environment, so paying attention to one location or the other alters superior colliculus activity and therefore alters these eye movements as well,” says Hafed.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to fundamental discoveries in the life sciences, the improvement of human health, and the training of future generations of researchers. Jonas Salk, M.D., whose polio vaccine all but eradicated the crippling disease poliomyelitis in 1955, opened the Institute in 1965 with a gift of land from the City of San Diego and the financial support of the March of Dimes.

Gina Kirchweger | Newswise Science News
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Novel mechanisms of action discovered for the skin cancer medication Imiquimod
21.10.2016 | Technische Universität München

nachricht Second research flight into zero gravity
21.10.2016 | Universität Zürich

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>