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What Are the Frontal Eye Fields?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 30 November 2016
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The frontal eye fields (FEFs) are areas of the frontal cortex responsible for coordinating rapid eye movements in response to visual stimuli. They are located in the area of the brain known as the premotor cortex, with a number of connections with other parts of the brain to quickly process and respond to sensory input. Research on the frontal eye fields provides important information about vision and perception, and can help researchers understand what goes wrong in some people who have vision problems associated with eye movement.

This area of the brain triggers saccadic eye movement, a very rapid form of movement in response to external stimuli. When people read, jerk their eyes up to see something across a room, or move their eyes to track something of interest like a fleeing deer, the frontal eye fields coordinate the eye movements needed to perform these tasks. This requires a high degree of sophistication, as the brain needs to be able to quickly sort through stimuli by relevance to find important visual information. It must also monitor the position of the body in space in order to determine how to move the eyes to track an object of interest.

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Connections between the frontal eye fields and other parts of the brain allow the brain to process visual information, assign priorities to objects in the visual field, and decide how to respond to it. This happens in fractions of a second, as people need to be able to respond near-instantaneously to stimuli. Sluggish responses could be dangerous, as for example if a driver doesn't react quickly to an oncoming car in the wrong lane.

Attention can also be mediated by the frontal eye fields. They sift through incoming data to determine which stimuli require immediate visual attention to collect more details or complete a task. This determines which way the eyes move. The brain must constantly weigh new incoming information to decide how to redirect attention in response to changing environments. This information can also interact with other systems in the body to trigger appropriate responses to stimuli, like ducking when someone sees a gun fired.

Errors with the neurological pathways that lead to and from the frontal eye fields can occur as a result of brain damage or congenital problems. Patients may have trouble focusing and processing visual information. This may make it harder to respond to stimuli; for example, a patient might not be able to track the movement of a person or object across a room. Likewise, visual searches might be more difficult without fully functioning frontal eye fields.

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