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Influence of the thalamus on spatial visual processing in frontal cortex


Each of our movements activates our own sensory receptors, and therefore keeping track of self-movement is a necessary part of analysing sensory input. One way in which the brain keeps track of self-movement is by monitoring an internal copy, or corollary discharge, of motor commands1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13. This concept could explain why we perceive a stable visual world despite our frequent quick, or saccadic, eye movements: corollary discharge about each saccade would permit the visual system to ignore saccade-induced visual changes6,7,8,9. The critical missing link has been the connection between corollary discharge and visual processing. Here we show that such a link is formed by a corollary discharge from the thalamus that targets the frontal cortex. In the thalamus, neurons in the mediodorsal nucleus relay a corollary discharge of saccades from the midbrain superior colliculus to the cortical frontal eye field10,11,12. In the frontal eye field, neurons use corollary discharge to shift their visual receptive fields spatially before saccades14,15. We tested the hypothesis that these two components—a pathway for corollary discharge and neurons with shifting receptive fields—form a circuit in which the corollary discharge drives the shift. First we showed that the known spatial and temporal properties of the corollary discharge predict the dynamic changes in spatial visual processing of cortical neurons when saccades are made. Then we moved from this correlation to causation by isolating single cortical neurons and showing that their spatial visual processing is impaired when corollary discharge from the thalamus is interrupted. Thus the visual processing of frontal neurons is spatiotemporally matched with, and functionally dependent on, corollary discharge input from the thalamus. These experiments establish the first link between corollary discharge and visual processing, delineate a brain circuit that is well suited for mediating visual stability, and provide a framework for studying corollary discharge in other sensory systems.

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Figure 1: Shifting receptive fields of visual neurons.
Figure 2: The spatial properties of shifting RFs are predicted by corollary discharge from the SC–MD–FEF pathway.
Figure 3: The temporal properties of shifting RFs are predicted by corollary discharge from the SC–MD–FEF pathway.
Figure 4: Shifting RFs require corollary discharge from the pathway.


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This research was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the NIH and the NEI. Author Contributions Both authors designed the experiments, M.A.S. performed and analysed them, and both authors wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Marc A. Sommer.

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Sommer, M., Wurtz, R. Influence of the thalamus on spatial visual processing in frontal cortex. Nature 444, 374–377 (2006).

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