Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

Biology and Biomedical Sciences: Neurosciences


English (en)

Date of Award

January 2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Lawrence Snyder


A principle task of our brain is to guide movements, includng saccade: fast eye movements) and reaches towards things that we see. Regions in the parietal cortex such as LIP and PRR are active during visually-guided movements. Neurons in these areas respond differentially for saccades versus reaches, but in most parietal areas there is some response: in single unit recording as well as in fMRI imaging) with either type of movement. This raises an important question. What is the functional significance of the neuronal activity in parietal areas? Recording and imaging studies can only show correlations; causal roles must be inferred. The activity in any particular area could reflect where the subject's spatial attention is directed, without regard for what behavior the subject will perform. Stronger activity in one task compared to another could reflect differential allocation of attention. For example, we might attend more strongly to a target for an eye movement than to a target for an arm movement, or vice versa. Alternatively, might play a causal role in driving only one type of movement. In this case, the weaker activity evoked during a different type of movement might serve no purpose at all; it might represent a contingency plan to perform the non-selected movement; or it might be serve some other function unrelated to the specific movement - for example, weak saccade-related activity in an area with strong arm movement related signals might support play no role in driving eye movements, but instead provide timing information to the reaching system to support eye-hand coordination. To help resolve this mystery, we used an interventional approach. We asked what happens to reaches and saccades when we reversibly lesioned specific areas in the monkey parietal cortex. In order to establish what brain regions were affected in each inactivation experiment, we developed a novel technique to image the location of the lesions in vivo. The results of this causal manipulation were clear: LIP lesions delay the initiation of saccades and have no effect on reaches, while PRR lesions delay the initiation of reaches and have no effect on saccades. We obtained further evidence for a more motoric role for parietal areas than previously suspected. PRR was active for reaches of only the contralateral arm, aimed at targets in either hemisphere - similar to the typical profiles of motor but not visual sensory areas. Interestingly, LIP lesions did influence reaches, but only when the animals were allowed to first look at the target before reaching for it. We believe that in this case, the reaching movement "waits" for the saccade system, and so the direct effect of the lesion on the saccades has an indirect effect on the reaches. These results are important for several reasons. First, they resolve a long-standing debate regarding the functional specificity of parietal areas with regard to particular movements and attention. They provide new information on the circuits guiding eye movements, arm movements and eye-hand coordination. Finally, our results underscore the fact that measurements of neuronal activity can be misleading, and are only one of several tools that must be used in order to understand brain function.


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