Recasting the smooth pursuit eye movement system

J Neurophysiol. 2004 Feb;91(2):591-603. doi: 10.1152/jn.00801.2003.


Primates use a combination of smooth pursuit and saccadic eye movements to stabilize the retinal image of selected objects within the high-acuity region near the fovea. Pursuit has traditionally been viewed as a relatively automatic behavior, driven by visual motion signals and mediated by pathways that connect visual areas in the cerebral cortex to motor regions in the cerebellum. However, recent findings indicate that this view needs to be reconsidered. Rather than being controlled primarily by areas in extrastriate cortex specialized for processing visual motion, pursuit involves an extended network of cortical areas, and, of these, the pursuit-related region in the frontal eye fields appears to exert the most direct influence. The traditional pathways through the cerebellum are important, but there are also newly identified routes involving structures previously associated with the control of saccades, including the basal ganglia, the superior colliculus, and nuclei in the brain stem reticular formation. These recent findings suggest that the pursuit system has a functional architecture very similar to that of the saccadic system. This viewpoint provides a new perspective on the processing steps that occur as descending control signals interact with circuits in the brain stem and cerebellum responsible for gating and executing voluntary eye movements. Although the traditional view describes pursuit and saccades as two distinct neural systems, it may be more accurate to consider the two movements as different outcomes from a shared cascade of sensory-motor functions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Fixation, Ocular / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Pursuit, Smooth / physiology*
  • Saccades / physiology*