In a nutshell: Repetitive training can improve what was thought to be an entirely reflexive behaviour.

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In humans, the sudden movement of a large textured pattern elicits a tracking eye response known as ocular following. This response helps to stabilize background images on the retina during body movements – such as when you need to keep your eye on the ball during a tennis match. Since ocular following was considered to be a reflexive behaviour, researchers believed that it could not be influenced by learning.

Brain Function CoE investigator Michael Ibbotson and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne and Monash University showed that the initial speed of ocular following in monkeys can be increased by training them on visual tasks over several weeks. This improves the speed at which visual stability is achieved, which may be one reason why repetitive training helps in ball sports.

The team trained monkeys to focus on a bright dot on a screen. By suddenly removing the dot and then moving the textured background pattern left or right, they could initiate the monkey’s ocular following response and test its speed. The direction of motion and the delay between the two movements were varied over the training sessions.

Their results show that repetition of this normal reflex over several weeks improves its initial speed. However, after weeks of training, the speed of the eye’s movement in this situation reached its physical limit.

Next steps:
The researchers plan to measure brain activity during the learning process, so they can understand exactly what is causing this reflex to go faster.

Hietanen, M. A., Price, N. S. C., Cloherty, S. L., Hadjidimitrakis, K., & Ibbotson, M. R. (2017). Long-term sensorimotor adaptation in the ocular following system of primates. PLoS One, 12(12), e0189030. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0189030

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