Skill representation in the primary motor cortex after long-term practice

J Neurophysiol. 2007 Feb;97(2):1819-32. doi: 10.1152/jn.00784.2006. Epub 2006 Dec 20.


The acquisition of motor skills can lead to profound changes in the functional organization of the primary motor cortex (M1). For example, performance of movement sequences after prolonged practice is associated with an expansion of the effector representation in M1. Paradoxically, there is little evidence that the activity of M1 neurons reflects acquired skills, especially sequences of movements. We examined the activity of M1 neurons during skilled movement sequences in macaques trained to successively hit targets on a monitor. The targets appeared either pseudorandomly (Random mode) or in one of two repeating sequences (Repeating mode). With practice, response times for repeating sequences substantially declined and the monkeys performed the task predictively. Highly trained animals retained the acquired skill after long gaps in practice. After >2 yr of training, 40% of M1 neurons were differentially active during the two task modes. Variations in movement kinematics did not fully explain the task-dependent modulation of neuron activity. Differentially active neurons were more strongly influenced by task mode than by kinematics. Our results suggest that practice sculpts the response properties of M1 neurons. M1 may be a site of storage for the internal representation of skilled sequential movements.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Electromyography
  • Eye Movements / physiology
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Memory / physiology
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Motor Skills / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Practice, Psychological*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Serial Learning / physiology