The mechanics of the eyeball and its surrounding tissues, which together form the oculomotor plant, have been shown to be the same for smooth pursuit and saccadic eye movements. Hence it was postulated that similar signals would be carried by motoneurons during slow and rapid eye movements. In the present study, we directly addressed this proposal by determining which eye movement-based models best describe the discharge dynamics of primate abducens neurons during a variety of eye movement behaviors. We first characterized abducens neuron spike trains, as has been classically done, during fixation and sinusoidal smooth pursuit. We then systematically analyzed the discharge dynamics of abducens neurons during and following saccades, during step-ramp pursuit and during high velocity slow-phase vestibular nystagmus. We found that the commonly utilized first-order description of abducens neuron firing rates (FR = b + kE + rE, where FR is firing rate, E and E are eye position and velocity, respectively, and b, k, and r are constants) provided an adequate model of neuronal activity during saccades, smooth pursuit, and slow phase vestibular nystagmus. However, the use of a second-order model, which included an exponentially decaying term or 'slide' (FR = b + kE + rE + uE - cFR), notably improved our ability to describe neuronal activity when the eye was moving and also enabled us to model abducens neuron discharges during the postsaccadic interval. We also found that, for a given model, a single set of parameters could not be used to describe neuronal firing rates during both slow and rapid eye movements. Specifically, the eye velocity and position coefficients (r and k in the above models, respectively) consistently decreased as a function of the mean (and peak) eye velocity that was generated. In contrast, the bias (b, firing rate when looking straight ahead) invariably increased with eye velocity. Although these trends are likely to reflect, in part, nonlinearities that are intrinsic to the extraocular muscles, we propose that these results can also be explained by considering the time-varying resistance to movement that is generated by the antagonist muscle. We conclude that to create realistic and meaningful models of the neural control of horizontal eye movements, it is essential to consider the activation of the antagonist, as well as agonist motoneuron pools.
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