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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Motor preparation and the auditory startle response Carlsen, Anthony Nigel


Studies investigating human information processing have provided evidence that in some cases, movements can be prepared in advance. Although evidence for motor preparation has been shown at cortical and spinal levels, motor preparation at a subcortical level is not well described. One line of inquiry has involved the use of a startling acoustic stimulus (115-124 dB) that can act as an early trigger for pre-programmed actions in reaction time (RT) tasks. In light of this new research paradigm, the startle reflex may be used as a tool to investigate motor preparation. Here, six experiments were conducted that work towards the goals of understanding the mechanism of RT shortening due to startle, and motor preparation at a subcortical level. The first section (2 experiments) of this dissertation provides evidence that when a motor action can be prepared in advance, it is pre-programmed and stored subcortically awaiting the normal cortical “go” signal. A startle appears to activate structures directly that are involved with the voluntary response channel leading to early triggering of the pre-programmed response, and dramatically reduced RT. In the current dissertation we investigated alternative mechanisms to explain startle RT facilitation, including the stimulus intensity effect, and a fast transcortical route, with results supporting the original subcortical storage hypothesis. The second section (4 experiments) presents data which together provide insight into motor programming processes, and the circumstances under which a response is pre-programmed. For example, when the possibility of not having to make the response existed, a known response was not pre-programmed. Similarly, no pre-programming occurred when certainty existed regarding when to respond. However, while a previous experiment showed that having to make a choice between several response alternatives precluded pre-programming, this dissertation shows that if possible response alternatives are not in conflict with one another, multiple responses can be prepared in parallel. Finally, the complexity of a response such as one involving multiple sequenced sub-components may limit the ability to pre-program in a simple RT task. Taken together, these results suggest that pre-programming is dependent on the task characteristics and appears to involve implementation of strategies to increase programming efficiency.

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