Primate motor cortex projects to spinal interneurons and motoneurons, suggesting that motor cortex activity may be dominated by muscle-like commands. Observations during reaching lend support to this view, but evidence remains ambiguous and much debated. To provide a different perspective, we employed a novel behavioral paradigm that facilitates comparison between time-evolving neural and muscle activity. We found that single motor cortex neurons displayed many muscle-like properties, but the structure of population activity was not muscle-like. Unlike muscle activity, neural activity was structured to avoid "tangling": moments where similar activity patterns led to dissimilar future patterns. Avoidance of tangling was present across tasks and species. Network models revealed a potential reason for this consistent feature: low tangling confers noise robustness. Finally, we were able to predict motor cortex activity from muscle activity by leveraging the hypothesis that muscle-like commands are embedded in additional structure that yields low tangling.
Keywords: motor control; motor cortex; movement generation; neural dynamics; neural network; pattern generation; rhythmic movement.
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