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J Vis. 2016;16(3):28. doi: 10.1167/16.3.28.

A solid frame for the window on cognition: Modeling event-related pupil responses.


Pupil size is often used to infer central processes, including attention, memory, and emotion. Recent research has spotlighted its relation to behavioral variables from decision-making models and to neural variables such as locus coeruleus activity and cortical oscillations. As yet, a unified and principled approach for analyzing pupil responses is lacking. Here we seek to establish a formal, quantitative forward model for pupil responses by describing them with linear time-invariant systems. Based on empirical data from human participants, we show that a combination of two linear time-invariant systems can parsimoniously explain approximately all variance evoked by illuminance changes. Notably, the model makes a counterintuitive prediction that pupil constriction dominates the responses to darkness flashes, as in previous empirical reports. This prediction was quantitatively confirmed for responses to light and darkness flashes in an independent group of participants. Crucially, illuminance- and nonilluminance-related inputs to the pupillary system are presumed to share a common final pathway, composed of muscles and nerve terminals. Hence, we can harness our illuminance-based model to estimate the temporal evolution of this neural input for an auditory-oddball task, an emotional-words task, and a visual-detection task. Onset and peak latencies of the estimated neural inputs furnish plausible hypotheses for the complexity of the underlying neural circuit. To conclude, this mathematical description of pupil responses serves as a prerequisite to refining their relation to behavioral and brain indices of cognitive processes.

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