Abstract goal representation in visual search by neurons in the human pre-supplementary motor area

Brain. 2019 Nov 1;142(11):3530-3549. doi: 10.1093/brain/awz279.


The medial frontal cortex is important for goal-directed behaviours such as visual search. The pre-supplementary motor area (pre-SMA) plays a critical role in linking higher-level goals to actions, but little is known about the responses of individual cells in this area in humans. Pre-SMA dysfunction is thought to be a critical factor in the cognitive deficits that are observed in diseases such as Parkinson's disease and schizophrenia, making it important to develop a better mechanistic understanding of the pre-SMA's role in cognition. We simultaneously recorded single neurons in the human pre-SMA and eye movements while subjects performed goal-directed visual search tasks. We characterized two groups of neurons in the pre-SMA. First, 40% of neurons changed their firing rate whenever a fixation landed on the search target. These neurons responded to targets in an abstract manner across several conditions and tasks. Responses were invariant to motor output (i.e. button press or not), and to different ways of defining the search target (by instruction or pop-out). Second, ∼50% of neurons changed their response as a function of fixation order. Together, our results show that human pre-SMA neurons carry abstract signals during visual search that indicate whether a goal was reached in an action- and cue-independent manner. This suggests that the pre-SMA contributes to goal-directed behaviour by flexibly signalling goal detection and time elapsed since start of the search, and this process occurs regardless of task. These observations provide insights into how pre-SMA dysfunction might impact cognitive function.

Keywords: abstract goal representation; human single unit; pre-supplementary motor area; target detection; visual search.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Cues
  • Drug Resistant Epilepsy / physiopathology
  • Drug Resistant Epilepsy / surgery
  • Electrodes
  • Electrophysiological Phenomena
  • Eye Movements
  • Fixation, Ocular
  • Goals
  • Humans
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Visual Perception / physiology*