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J Neurosci. 2013 Nov 20;33(47):18481-91. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3456-13.2013.

Unexpected events induce motor slowing via a brain mechanism for action-stopping with global suppressive effects.

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Psychology Department, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California 92103.


When an unexpected event occurs in everyday life (e.g., a car honking), one experiences a slowing down of ongoing action (e.g., of walking into the street). Motor slowing following unexpected events is a ubiquitous phenomenon, both in laboratory experiments as well as such everyday situations, yet the underlying mechanism is unknown. We hypothesized that unexpected events recruit the same inhibition network in the brain as does complete cancellation of an action (i.e., action-stopping). Using electroencephalography and independent component analysis in humans, we show that a brain signature of successful outright action-stopping also exhibits activity following unexpected events, and more so in blocks with greater motor slowing. Further, using transcranial magnetic stimulation to measure corticospinal excitability, we show that an unexpected event has a global motor suppressive effect, just like outright action-stopping. Thus, unexpected events recruit a common mechanism with outright action-stopping, moreover with global suppressive effects. These findings imply that we can now leverage the considerable extant knowledge of the neural architecture and functional properties of the stopping system to better understand the processing of unexpected events, including perhaps how they induce distraction via global suppression.

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