Control of eye orientation: Where does the brain's role end and the muscle's begin?

Dora E. Angelaki, Bernhard J.M. Hess

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Our understanding of how the brain controls eye movements has benefited enormously from the comparison of neuronal activity with eye movements and the quantification of these relationships with mathematical models. Although these early studies focused on horizontal and vertical eye movements, recent behavioural and modelling studies have illustrated the importance, but also the complexity, of extending previous conclusions to the problems of controlling eye and head orientation in three dimensions (3-D). An important facet in understanding 3-D eye orientation and movement has been the discovery of mobile, soft-tissue sheaths or 'pulleys' in the orbit which might influence the pulling direction of extraocular muscles. Appropriately placed pulleys could generate the eye-position-dependent tilt of the ocular rotation axes which are characteristic for eye movements which follow Listing's law. Based on such pulley models of the oculomotor plant it has recently been proposed that a simple two-dimensional (2-D) neural controller would be sufficient to generate correct 3-D eye orientation and movement. In contrast to this apparent simplification in oculomotor control, multiple behavioural observations suggest that the visuo-motor transformations, as well as the premotor circuitry for saccades, pursuit eye movements and the vestibulo-ocular reflexes, must include a neural controller which operates in 3-D, even when considering an eye plant with pulleys. This review summarizes the most recent work and ideas on this controversy. In addition, by proposing directly testable hypotheses, we point out that, in analogy to the previously successful steps towards elucidating the neural control of horizontal eye movements, we need a quantitative characterization first of motoneuron and next of premotor neuron properties in 3-D before we can succeed in gaining further insight into the neural control of 3-D motor behaviours.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalEuropean Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2004


  • Computation
  • Eye movement
  • Kinematics
  • Modelling
  • Motor control
  • Pursuit
  • Saccades
  • Torsion
  • Vestibuloocular reflex

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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