Neural mechanisms for synthesizing sensory information and producing adaptive behaviors

Exp Brain Res. 1998 Nov;123(1-2):124-35. doi: 10.1007/s002210050553.


The ability to integrate information from different sensory systems is a fundamental characteristic of the brain. Because different bits of information are derived from different sensory channels, their synthesis markedly enhances the detection and identification of external stimuli. The neural substrate for such "multisensory" integration is provided by neurons that receive convergent input from two or more sensory modalities. Many such multisensory neurons are found in the superior colliculus (SC), a midbrain structure that plays a significant role in overt attentive and orientation behaviors. The various principles governing the integration of visual, auditory, and somatosensory inputs in SC neurons have been explored in several species. Thus far, the evidence suggests a remarkable conservation of integrative features during vertebrate evolution. One of the most robust of these principles is based on spatial relationships: a striking enhancement in activity is induced in a multisensory neuron when two different sensory stimuli (e.g., visual and auditory) are in spatial concordance, whereas a profound response depression can be induced when these cues are spatially discordant. The most extensive physiological observations have been made in cat, and in this species the same principles that have been shown to govern multisensory integration at the level of the individual SC neuron have also been shown to govern overt attentive and orientation responses to multisensory stimuli. Most surprising, however, is the critical role played by association (i.e. anterior ectosylvian) cortex in facilitating these midbrain processes. In the absence of the modulating corticotectal influences, multisensory SC neurons in cat are unable to integrate the different sensory cues converging upon them in an adult-like fashion, and are unable to mediate overt multisensory behaviors. This situation appears quite similar to that observed during early postnatal life. When multisensory SC neurons first appear, they are able to respond to multiple sensory inputs but are unable to synthesize these inputs to significantly enhance or degrade their responses. During ontogeny, individual multisensory neurons develop this capacity abruptly, but at very different ages, until the mature population condition is reached after several postnatal months. It appears likely that the abrupt onset of this capacity in any individual SC neuron reflects the maturation of inputs from anterior ectosylvian cortex. Presumably, the functional coupling of cortex with an individual SC neuron is essential to initiate and maintain that neuron's capability for multisensory integration throughout its life.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cats / physiology
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena*
  • Perceptual Masking / physiology*
  • Primates / physiology
  • Sensation / physiology*
  • Superior Colliculi / physiology