, Volume 177, Issue 1, pp 129-136
Date: 31 Aug 2006

A startle speeds up the execution of externally guided saccades

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The control of eye movements depends in part on subcortical motor centres. Gaze is often directed towards salient visual stimuli of our environment with no conscious voluntary commands. To further understand to what extent preprogrammed eye movements can be triggered subcortically, we carried out a study in normal volunteers to examine the effects of a startling auditory stimulus (SAS) on externally guided saccades. A peripheral visual cue was presented in the horizontal plane at a site distant 15° from the fixation point, and subjects were instructed to make a saccade to it. SAS was presented together with the peripheral visual cue in 20% of trials. To force rapid visual fixation at the end of the saccade, targets were loaded with a second cue, a small arrow pointing towards the right or the left (or a neutral sign), not distinguishable with peripheral vision. Subjects were requested to perform a flexion/extension wrist movement, according to the direction of the arrow (or not to move if the second cue was the neutral sign). SAS presented together with the visual target caused a significant shortening of the latency of saccadic movements. The wrist movements performed as a response to the second cue had similar reaction times regardless of whether the trial contained a SAS or not. Our results show that voluntary saccades to peripheral targets are speeded up by activation of the startle circuit, and that this effect does not cause a significant disturbance in the execution of simple in-target cues. These results suggest that subcortical structures play a main role in preparation of externally guided saccades.