Response competition in the primary motor cortex: corticospinal excitability reflects response replacement during simple decisions

J Neurophysiol. 2010 Jul;104(1):119-27. doi: 10.1152/jn.00819.2009. Epub 2010 May 5.


It has been suggested that, during decisions about actions, multiple options are initially specified in parallel and then gradually eliminated in a competition for overt execution. To further test this hypothesis, we studied the modulation of human corticospinal excitability during the reaction time of the Eriksen flanker task. In the task, subjects responded with finger flexion or extension to a central arrow while ignoring congruent or incongruent flanker arrows. Single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was applied over primary motor cortex (M1) at one of five different latencies after stimulus onset, and motor-evoked potentials (MEPs) were measured in the contralateral index finger. During the control (no flankers) and congruent conditions, MEP size in the agonist increased gradually over the course of reaction time, indicating an increase in corticospinal excitability. Conversely, when the same muscle acted as an antagonist, MEP size decreased, suggesting inhibition. Critically, in the incongruent condition, MEPs briefly increased in the muscle corresponding to an initial default response to the flanker arrows and were later replaced by MEPs corresponding to the correct response to the central arrow. Finally, we found that the gradually growing MEPs for the three conditions reached a constant maximum level just before movement initiation. We propose that this dynamic modulation in corticospinal excitability reflects the competition process, leading to the selection of one response and the rejection of the other. Our results suggest that response competition influences activity in primary motor cortex and that its timing directly influences motor output latency.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cues
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Electromyography
  • Evoked Potentials, Motor / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Pyramidal Tracts / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
  • Young Adult