Symbolic cues enhance express visuomotor responses in human arm muscles at the motor planning rather than the visuospatial processing stage

J Neurophysiol. 2022 Sep 1;128(3):494-510. doi: 10.1152/jn.00136.2022. Epub 2022 Jul 20.


Humans can produce "express" (∼100 ms) arm muscle responses that are inflexibly locked in time and space to visual target presentations, consistent with subcortical visuomotor transformations via the tecto-reticulo-spinal pathway. These express visuomotor responses are sensitive to explicit cue-driven expectations, but it is unclear at what stage of sensory-to-motor transformation such modulation occurs. Here, we recorded electromyographic activity from shoulder muscles as participants reached toward one of four virtual targets whose physical location was partially predictable from a symbolic cue. In an experiment in which targets could be veridically reached, express responses were inclusive of the biomechanical requirements for reaching the cued locations and not systematically modulated by cue validity. In a second experiment, movements were restricted to the horizontal plane so that the participants could perform only rightward or leftward reaches, irrespective of target position on the vertical axis. Express muscle responses were almost identical for targets that were validly cued in the horizontal direction, regardless of cue validity in the vertical dimension. Together, these findings suggest that the cue-induced enhancements of express responses are dominated by effects at the level of motor plans and not solely via facilitation of early visuospatial target processing. Notably, direct corticotectal and corticoreticular projections exist that are well-placed to modulate prestimulus motor preparation state in subcortical circuits. Our results could reflect a neural mechanism by which contextually relevant motor responses to compatible visual inputs are rapidly released via subcortical circuits that are sufficiently along the sensory-to-motor continuum.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Express arm muscle responses to suddenly appearing visual targets for reaching rapid have been attributed to the tecto-reticulo-spinal pathway in humans. We demonstrate that symbolic cues before target presentation can modulate such express arm muscle responses compatibly with the biomechanics of the cued reaching direction and the cue validity. This implies cortically mediated modulation of one or more sensorimotor transformation nodes of the subcortical express pathway.

Keywords: motor preparation; reticular formation; stimulus-locked response; subcortical motor control; superior colliculus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Arm / physiology
  • Cues*
  • Humans
  • Movement / physiology
  • Muscles
  • Psychomotor Performance* / physiology
  • Reaction Time / physiology