Research findings offer new insights into how our movements are coordinated.
Keeping our eyes focused on what we reach for, whether it’s a supermarket item or a ground ball on the baseball field, may appear to be effortless, but it’s actually the result of a complex brain process involving delicate timing and coordination. A team of academics sheds more insight on the mechanisms that ensure we don’t glance away from where we’re going in a new study published today (April 20, 2022) in the journal Nature.
The work centers on a form of coordinated looking and reach called “gaze anchoring”—the temporary stoppage of eye movements in order to coordinate reaches.
“Our results show that we anchor our gaze to the target of the reach movement, thereby looking at that target for longer periods,” explains Bijan Pesaran, a professor at NYU’s Center for Neural Science and one of the paper’s authors. “This is what makes our reaches much more accurate. The big question has been: How does the brain orchestrate this kind of natural behavior?”
The study, conducted with Maureen Hagan, a neuroscientist at Australia’s Monash University, explores the frequently studied but not well understood process of gaze anchoring—in particular, how different regions of the brain communicate with each other.
To examine this phenomenon, the scientists studied brain activity in the arm and eye movement regions of the brain at the same time as non-human primates performed a sequence of eye and arm movements. The first movement was a coordinated look-and-reach to a target. Then, as little as 10 milliseconds later, a second target was presented that subjects needed to look at as quickly as possible. This second eye movement revealed the gaze anchoring effect. These movements are similar to those made when changing the radio while driving and attending to a traffic light—if you quickly look away from the radio to the traffic light, you might not select the right channel.
Their results showed that, during gaze anchoring, neurons in the part of the brain—the parietal reach region—used for reaching work to inhibit neuron activity in the part of the brain—the parietal saccade region—used for eye movements. This suppression of neuron firing serves to inhibit eye movement, keeping our eyes centered on the target of our reach, which then enhances the accuracy of what we’re grasping for. Importantly, the scientists note, the effects were tied to patterns of brain waves at 15-25 Hz, called beta waves, that organize neural firing across the different regions of the brain.
“Beta waves have been previously linked to attention and cognition, and this study reveals how beta activity may control inhibitory brain mechanisms to coordinate our natural behavior,” explains Pesaran.
By further illuminating the neurological processes of coordinated looking and reaching, tying them to inhibitory beta waves, this study offers the potential to better understand afflictions of attention and executive control that orchestrate natural behaviors like coordinated looking and reaching.
Reference: “Modulation of inhibitory communication coordinates looking and reaching” by Maureen A. Hagan and Bijan Pesaran, 20 April 2022, Nature.
The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (T32 EY007136), Australian Research Council (DE180100344), the National Science Foundation (BCS-0955701), the National Eye Institute (R01-EY024067), the Army Research Office, the Simons Foundation, a McKnight Scholar Award, and a Sloan Research Fellowship.