The ability to learn new skills and perfect them with practice applies not only to physical skills but also to abstract skills, like motor planning or neuroprosthetic actions. Although plasticity in corticostriatal circuits has been implicated in learning physical skills, it remains unclear if similar circuits or processes are required for abstract skill learning. Here we use a novel behavioural task in rodents to investigate the role of corticostriatal plasticity in abstract skill learning. Rodents learned to control the pitch of an auditory cursor to reach one of two targets by modulating activity in primary motor cortex irrespective of physical movement. Degradation of the relation between action and outcome, as well as sensory-specific devaluation and omission tests, demonstrate that these learned neuroprosthetic actions are intentional and goal-directed, rather than habitual. Striatal neurons change their activity with learning, with more neurons modulating their activity in relation to target-reaching as learning progresses. Concomitantly, strong relations between the activity of neurons in motor cortex and the striatum emerge. Specific deletion of striatal NMDA receptors impairs the development of this corticostriatal plasticity, and disrupts the ability to learn neuroprosthetic skills. These results suggest that corticostriatal plasticity is necessary for abstract skill learning, and that neuroprosthetic movements capitalize on the neural circuitry involved in natural motor learning.
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