Using saccades as a research tool in the clinical neurosciences
Saccades are rapid eye movements that move the line of sight between successive points of fixation; they are among the best understood of movements, possessing dynamic properties that are easily measured. Saccades have become a popular means to study motor control, cognition and memory, and are often used in conjunction with techniques such as functional imaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation. It has been possible to identify several, distinct populations of neurons, from brainstem to cerebral cortex, that contribute to behaviours ranging from reflexive glances to memorized sequences of saccades during learned tasks. This progress has led to the development of schemes for the neurobiology of saccades that imply an equivalence of a region of the brain with specific behaviours (e.g. prefrontal cortex with memory‐guided saccades). In fact, multiple neuronal populations contribute to each type of saccadic behaviour, be it ‘reflexive’ or ‘complex’. Furthermore, an important difference exists between cortical areas that encode visual stimuli or desired saccades over a population of neurons as ‘place maps’, and motoneurons in oculomotor, trochlear and abducens nuclei that dictate eye rotations in terms of their discharge rates. This dichotomy implies that a ‘spatial‐temporal transformation’ of saccadic signals must occur between cerebral cortex and ocular motoneurons, to which the superior colliculus and cerebellum contribute. Consideration of such factors may broaden the value of saccades, which can be used to test a range of hypotheses, and provide a simple scheme for understanding clinical disorders of saccades; some illustrative video clips are available as supplementary material at Brain Online.