The orienting reflex is initiated by a salient stimulus and facilitates quick, appropriate action. It involves a rapid shift of the eyes, head, and attention and other physiological responses such as changes in heart rate and transient pupil dilation. The SC is a critical structure in the midbrain that selects incoming stimuli based on saliency and relevance to coordinate orienting behaviors, particularly gaze shifts, but its causal role in pupil dilation remains poorly understood in mammals. Here, we examined the role of the primate SC in the control of pupil dynamics. While requiring monkeys to keep their gaze fixed, we delivered weak electrical microstimulation to the SC, so that saccadic eye movements were not evoked. Pupil size increased transiently after microstimulation of the intermediate SC layers (SCi) and the size of evoked pupil dilation was larger on a dim versus bright background. In contrast, microstimulation of the superficial SC layers did not cause pupil dilation. Thus, the SCi is directly involved not only in shifts of gaze and attention, but also in pupil dilation as part of the orienting reflex, and the function of pupil dilation may be related to increasing visual sensitivity. The shared neural mechanisms suggest that pupil dilation may be associated with covert attention.
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