Warning signals influence motor processing

J Neurophysiol. 2007 Feb;97(2):1600-9. doi: 10.1152/jn.00978.2005. Epub 2006 Nov 29.


When observers initiate responses to visual targets, they do so sooner when a preceding stimulus indicates that the target will appear shortly. This consequence of a warning signal may change neural activity in one of four ways. On the sensory side, the warning signal may speed up the rate at which the target is registered by the brain or enhance the magnitude of its signal. On the motor end, the warning signal may lower the threshold required to initiate a response or speed up the rate at which activity accumulates to reach threshold. Here, we describe which explanation is better supported. To accomplish this end, monkeys performed different versions of a cue-target task while we monitored the activity of visuomotor and motor neurons in the superior colliculus. Although the cue target task was designed to measure the properties of reflexive spatial attention, there are two events in this task that produce nonspecific warning effects: a central reorienting event (brightening of central fixation marker) that is used to direct attention away from the cue, and the presentation of the cue itself. Monopolizing on these tendencies, we show that warning effects are associated with several changes in neural activity: the target-related response is enhanced, the threshold for initiating a saccade is lowered, and the rate at which activity accumulates toward threshold rises faster. Ultimately, the accumulation of activity toward threshold predicted behavior most closely. In the discussion, we describe the implications and limitations of these data for theories of warning effects and potential avenues for future research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology
  • Conditioning, Operant / physiology
  • Cues*
  • Fixation, Ocular / physiology
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Male
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Orientation / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Saccades / physiology
  • Space Perception / physiology
  • Superior Colliculi / cytology
  • Superior Colliculi / physiology
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology
  • Visual Perception / physiology