DOI: 10.7554/elife.84822 ISSN: 2050-084X

Pupil size reflects activation of subcortical ascending arousal system nuclei during rest

Beth Lloyd, Lycia D de Voogd, Verónica Mäki-Marttunen, Sander Nieuwenhuis
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Medicine
  • General Neuroscience

Neuromodulatory nuclei that are part of the ascending arousal system (AAS) play a crucial role in regulating cortical state and optimizing task performance. Pupil diameter, under constant luminance conditions, is increasingly used as an index of activity of these AAS nuclei. Indeed, task-based functional imaging studies in humans have begun to provide evidence of stimulus-driven pupil-AAS coupling. However, whether there is such a tight pupil-AAS coupling during rest is not clear. To address this question, we examined simultaneously acquired resting-state fMRI and pupil-size data from 74 participants, focusing on six AAS nuclei: the locus coeruleus, ventral tegmental area, substantia nigra, dorsal and median raphe nuclei, and cholinergic basal forebrain. Activation in all six AAS nuclei was optimally correlated with pupil size at 0–2 s lags, suggesting that spontaneous pupil changes were almost immediately followed by corresponding BOLD-signal changes in the AAS. These results suggest that spontaneous changes in pupil size that occur during states of rest can be used as a noninvasive general index of activity in AAS nuclei. Importantly, the nature of pupil-AAS coupling during rest appears to be vastly different from the relatively slow canonical hemodynamic response function that has been used to characterize task-related pupil-AAS coupling.

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