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Skillful control of movement is central to our ability to sense and manipulate the world. A large body of work in nonhuman primates has demonstrated that motor cortex provides flexible, time-varying activity patterns that control the arm during reaching and grasping. Previous studies have suggested that these patterns are generated by strong local recurrent dynamics operating autonomously from inputs during movement execution. An alternative possibility is that motor cortex requires coordination with upstream brain regions throughout the entire movement in order to yield these patterns. Here, we developed an experimental preparation in the mouse to directly test these possibilities using optogenetics and electrophysiology during a skilled reach-to-grab-to-eat task. To validate this preparation, we first established that a specific, time-varying pattern of motor cortical activity was required to produce coordinated movement. Next, in order to disentangle the contribution of local recurrent motor cortical dynamics from external input, we optogenetically held the recurrent contribution constant, then observed how motor cortical activity recovered following the end of this perturbation. Both the neural responses and hand trajectory varied from trial to trial, and this variability reflected variability in external inputs. To directly probe the role of these inputs, we used optogenetics to perturb activity in the thalamus. Thalamic perturbation at the start of the trial prevented movement initiation, and perturbation at any stage of the movement prevented progression of the hand to the target; this demonstrates that input is required throughout the movement. By comparing motor cortical activity with and without thalamic perturbation, we were able to estimate the effects of external inputs on motor cortical population activity. Thus, unlike pattern-generating circuits that are local and autonomous, such as those in the spinal cord that generate left-right alternation during locomotion, the pattern generator for reaching and grasping is distributed across multiple, strongly-interacting brain regions.