Trial-by-trial modulation of express visuomotor responses induced by symbolic or barely detectable cues

J Neurophysiol. 2021 Nov 1;126(5):1507-1523. doi: 10.1152/jn.00053.2021. Epub 2021 Sep 22.


Human cerebral cortex can produce visuomotor responses that are modulated by contextual and task-specific constraints. However, the distributed cortical network for visuomotor transformations limits the minimal response time of that pathway. Notably, humans can generate express visuomotor responses in arm muscles that are inflexibly tuned to the target location and occur 80-120 ms from stimulus presentation [stimulus-locked responses (SLRs)]. This suggests a subcortical pathway for visuomotor transformations that might involve the superior colliculus and its downstream reticulo-spinal projections. Here we investigated whether cognitive expectations can modulate the SLR. In one experiment, we recorded surface electromyogram (EMG) from shoulder muscles as participants reached toward a visual target whose location was unpredictable in control conditions and partially predictable in cue conditions by interpreting a symbolic cue (75% validity). Valid symbolic cues led to earlier and larger SLRs than control conditions; invalid symbolic cues produced later and smaller SLRs than control conditions. This is consistent with a cortical top-down modulation of the putative subcortical SLR network. In a second experiment, we presented high-contrast targets in isolation (control) or ∼24 ms after low-contrast stimuli, which could appear at the same (valid cue) or opposite (invalid cue) location as the target and with equal probability (50% cue validity). We observed earlier SLRs than control with the valid low-contrast cues, whereas the invalid cues led to the opposite results. These findings may reflect bottom-up attentional mechanisms, potentially evolving subcortically via the superior colliculus. Overall, our results support both top-down and bottom-up modulations of the putative subcortical SLR network in humans.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Express visuomotor responses in humans appear to reflect subcortical sensorimotor transformation of visual inputs, potentially conveyed via the tecto-reticulo-spinal pathway. Here we show that the express responses are influenced by both symbolic and barely detectable spatial cues about stimulus location. The symbolic cue-induced effects suggest cortical top-down modulation of the putative subcortical visuomotor network. The effects of barely detectable cues may reflect exogenous facilitation mechanisms of the tecto-reticulo-spinal pathway.

Keywords: low-contrast stimulus; rapid visuomotor response; reaching; subcortical motor control; superior colliculus.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cues*
  • Electromyography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Shoulder / physiology
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult