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Publication Detail
Saliency detection as a reactive process: unexpected sensory events evoke cortico-muscular coupling.
  • Publication Type:
    Journal article
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  • Authors:
    Novembre G, Pawar VM, Bufacchi RJ, Kilintari M, Srinivasan MA, Rothwell JC, Haggard P, Iannetti GD
  • Publication date:
  • Journal:
    The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience
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  • Language:
  • Addresses:
    Department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology, University College London. UK.
Survival in a fast-changing environment requires animals not only to detect unexpected sensory events, but also to react. In humans, these salient sensory events generate large electrocortical responses, which have been traditionally interpreted within the sensory domain. Here we describe a basic physiological mechanism coupling saliency-related cortical responses with motor output. In four experiments conducted on 70 healthy participants, we show that salient sub-startle sensory stimuli modulate isometric force exertion by human participants, and that this modulation is tightly coupled with electrocortical activity elicited by the same stimuli. We obtained four main results. First, the force modulation follows a complex triphasic pattern consisting of alternating decreases and increases of force, time-locked to stimulus onset. Second, this modulation occurs regardless of the sensory modality of the eliciting stimulus. Third, the magnitude of the force modulation is predicted by the amplitude of the electrocortical activity elicited by the same stimuli. Fourth, both neural and motor effects are not reflexive, but depend on contextual factors. Taken together, these results indicate that sudden environmental stimuli have an immediate effect on motor processing, through a cortico-muscular coupling. These observations suggest that saliency detection is not merely perceptive but reactive, preparing the animal for subsequent appropriate actions.Significance statementSalient events occurring in the environment, regardless of their modalities, elicit large electrical brain responses, dominated by a widespread "vertex" negative-positive potential. This response is the largest synchronization of neural activity that can be recorded from a healthy human being. All current interpretations assume that this vertex potential reflects sensory processes. Contrary to this general assumption, we show that the vertex potential is strongly coupled with a modulation of muscular activity that follows the same pattern. Both the vertex potential and its motor effects are not reflexive, but strongly depend on contextual factors. These results reconceptualise the significance of these evoked electrocortical responses suggesting that saliency detection is not merely perceptive but reactive, preparing the animal for subsequent appropriate actions.
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