Brain-wide arousal signals are segregated from movement planning in the superior colliculus

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The superior colliculus (SC) is traditionally considered a brain region that functions as an interface between processing visual inputs and generating eye movement outputs. Although its role as a primary reflex center is thought to be conserved across vertebrate species, evidence suggests that the SC has evolved to support higher-order cognitive functions including spatial attention. When it comes to oculomotor areas such as the SC, it is critical that high precision fixation and eye movements are maintained even in the presence of signals related to ongoing changes in cognition and brain state, both of which have the potential to interfere with eye position encoding and movement generation. In this study, we recorded spiking responses of neuronal populations in the SC while monkeys performed a memory-guided saccade task and found that the activity of some of the neurons fluctuated over tens of minutes. By leveraging the statistical power afforded by high-dimensional neuronal recordings, we were able to identify a low-dimensional pattern of activity that was correlated with the subjects’ arousal levels. Importantly, we found that the spiking responses of deep-layer SC neurons were less correlated with this brain-wide arousal signal, and that neural activity associated with changes in pupil size and saccade tuning did not overlap in population activity space with movement initiation signals. Taken together, these findings provide a framework for understanding how signals related to cognition and arousal can be embedded in the population activity of oculomotor structures without compromising the fidelity of the motor output.

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