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Encoding of movement time by populations of cerebellar Purkinje cells


One of the earliest computational principles attributed to the cerebellum was the measurement of time1. This idea was originally suggested on anatomical grounds, and was taken up again to explain some of the deficits in cerebellar patients2,3. The contribution of the cerebellum to eye movements, in contrast, has traditionally been discussed in the context of motor learning4,5,6,7. This view has received support from the loss of saccade adaptation, one of the key examples of motor learning, following lesions of the posterior cerebellar vermis8,9,10,11. However, the relationship between the properties of saccade-related vermal Purkinje cells and the behavioural deficits that follow lesions is unclear. Here we report results from single-unit recording experiments on monkeys that reconcile the seemingly unrelated concepts of timing and motor learning. We report that, unlike individual Purkinje cells, the population response of larger groups of Purkinje cells gives a precise temporal signature of saccade onset and offset. Thus a vermal population response may help to determine saccade duration. Modifying the time course of the population response by changing the weights of the contributing individual Purkinje cells, discharging at different times relative to the saccade, would directly translate into changes in saccade amplitude.

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Figure 1: Perisaccadic time histograms and raster plots obtained from vermal PCs, reflecting the highly variable dependence of saccade-related bursts on saccade amplitude.
Figure 2: Dependence of saccade duration on saccade length (a) and burst parameters on saccade durations (b–f).
Figure 3: Dependence of the population burst on saccade duration.
Figure 4: Scatter-plot of p, the probability of the linear regression, fitting plots of saccade end as function of burst end, as a function of its slope m.

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This work was funded by the German-Israeli-Foundation and the German Research Council (Forschergruppe ‘Wahrnehmen und Agieren im Raum’). We thank M. Erb and W. Grodd for their help with the anatomic MRI scans and C. Schwarz and F. Sultan for helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Peter Thier.

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Thier, P., Dicke, P., Haas, R. et al. Encoding of movement time by populations of cerebellar Purkinje cells . Nature 405, 72–76 (2000).

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