Royal Society Publishing

The functions of the proprioceptors of the eye muscles

I.M.L. Donaldson

Abstract

This article sets out to present a fairly comprehensive review of our knowledge about the functions of the receptors that have been found in the extraocular muscles – the six muscles that move each eye of vertebrates in its orbit – of all the animals in which they have been sought, including Man. Since their discovery at the beginning of the 20th century these receptors have, at various times, been credited with important roles in the control of eye movement and the construction of extrapersonal space and have also been denied any function whatsoever. Experiments intended to study the actions of eye muscle receptors and, even more so, opinions (and indeed polemic) derived from these observations have been influenced by the changing fashions and beliefs about the more general question of how limb position and movement is detected by the brain and which signals contribute to those aspects of this that are p erceived (kinaesthesis). But the conclusions drawn from studies on the eye have also influenced beliefs about the mechanisms of kinaesthesis and, arguably, this influence has been even larger than that in the converse direction. Experimental evidence accumulated over rather more than a century is set out and discussed. It supports the view that, at the beginning of the 21st century, there are excellent grounds for believing that the receptors in the extraocular muscles are indeed proprioceptors, that is to say that the signals that they send into the brain are used to provide information about the position and movement of the eye in the orbit. It seems that this information is important in the control of eye movements of at least some types, and in the determination by the brain of the direction of gaze and the relationship of the organism to its environment. In addition, signals from these receptors in the eye muscles are seen to be necessary for the development of normal mechanisms of visual analysis in the mammalian visual cortex and for both the development and maintenance of normal visuomotor behaviour. Man is among those vertebrates to whose brains eye muscle proprioceptive signals provide information apparently used in normal sensorimotor functions; these include various aspects of perception, and of the control of eye movement. It is possible that abnormalities of the eye muscle proprioceptors and their signals may play a part in the genesis of some types of human squint (strabismus); conversely studies of patients with squint in the course of their surgical or pharmacological treatment have yielded much interesting evidence about the central actions of the proprioceptive signals from the extraocular muscles. The results of experiments on the eye have played a large part in the historical controversy, now in at least its third century, about the origin of signals that inform the brain about movement of parts of the body. Some of these results, and more of the interpretations of them, now need to be critically re–examined. The re–examination in the light of recent experiments that is presented here does not support many of the conclusions confidently drawn in the past and leads to both new insights and fresh questions about the roles of information from motor signals flowing out of the brain and that from signals from the peripheral receptors flowing into it. There remain many lacunae in our knowledge and filling some of these will, it is contended, be essential to advance our understanding further. It is argued that such understanding of eye muscle proprioception is a necessary part of the understanding of the physiology and pathophysiology of eye movement control and that it is also essential to an account of how organisms, including Man, build and maintain knowledge of their relationship to the external visual world. The eye would seem to provide a uniquely favourable system in which to study the way in which information derived within the brain about motor actions may interact with signals flowing in from peripheral receptors. The review is constructed in relatively independent sections that deal with particular topics. It ends with a fairly brief piece in which the author sets out some personal views about what has been achieved recently and what most immediately needs to be done. It also suggests some lines of study that appear to the author to be important for the future.