OPEN PLoS biology | 3 Nov 2012
BA Schneider and GM Ghose
We often perform movements and actions on the basis of internal motivations and without any explicit instructions or cues. One common example of such behaviors is our ability to initiate movements solely on the basis of an internally generated sense of the passage of time. In order to isolate the neuronal signals responsible for such timed behaviors, we devised a task that requires nonhuman primates to move their eyes consistently at regular time intervals in the absence of any external stimulus events and without an immediate expectation of reward. Despite the lack of sensory information, we found that animals were remarkably precise and consistent in timed behaviors, with standard deviations on the order of 100 ms. To examine the potential neural basis of this precision, we recorded from single neurons in the lateral intraparietal area (LIP), which has been implicated in the planning and execution of eye movements. In contrast to previous studies that observed a build-up of activity associated with the passage of time, we found that LIP activity decreased at a constant rate between timed movements. Moreover, the magnitude of activity was predictive of the timing of the impending movement. Interestingly, this relationship depended on eye movement direction: activity was negatively correlated with timing when the upcoming saccade was toward the neuron’s response field and positively correlated when the upcoming saccade was directed away from the response field. This suggests that LIP activity encodes timed movements in a push-pull manner by signaling for both saccade initiation towards one target and prolonged fixation for the other target. Thus timed movements in this task appear to reflect the competition between local populations of task relevant neurons rather than a global timing signal.
* Data courtesy of Altmetric.com