From the motor cortex to the movement and back again

PLoS One. 2017 Jun 20;12(6):e0179288. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0179288. eCollection 2017.


The motor cortex controls motor behaviors by generating movement-specific signals and transmitting them through spinal cord circuits and motoneurons to the muscles. Precise and well-coordinated muscle activation patterns are necessary for accurate movement execution. Therefore, the activity of cortical neurons should correlate with movement parameters. To investigate the specifics of such correlations among activities of the motor cortex, spinal cord network and muscles, we developed a model for neural control of goal-directed reaching movements that simulates the entire pathway from the motor cortex through spinal cord circuits to the muscles controlling arm movements. In this model, the arm consists of two joints (shoulder and elbow), whose movements are actuated by six muscles (4 single-joint and 2 double-joint flexors and extensors). The muscles provide afferent feedback to the spinal cord circuits. Cortical neurons are defined as cortical "controllers" that solve an inverse problem based on a proposed straight-line trajectory to a target position and a predefined bell-shaped velocity profile. Thus, the controller generates a motor program that produces a task-specific activation of low-level spinal circuits that in turn induce the muscle activation realizing the intended reaching movement. Using the model, we describe the mechanisms of correlation between cortical and motoneuronal activities and movement direction and other movement parameters. We show that the directional modulation of neuronal activity in the motor cortex and the spinal cord may result from direction-specific dynamics of muscle lengths. Our model suggests that directional modulation first emerges at the level of muscle forces, augments at the motoneuron level, and further increases at the level of the motor cortex due to the dependence of frictional forces in the joints, contractility of the muscles and afferent feedback on muscle lengths and/or velocities.

MeSH terms

  • Arm / physiology*
  • Elbow Joint / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Movement / physiology*
  • Muscle Contraction
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*

Grant support

This work was supported by the CHDI Foundation.