Animals can capitalize on invariance in the environment by learning and automating highly consistent actions; however, they must also remain flexible and adapt to environmental changes. It remains unclear how primary motor cortex (M1) can drive precise movements, yet also support behavioral exploration when faced with consistent errors. Using a reach-to-grasp task in rats, along with simultaneous electrophysiological monitoring in M1 and dorsolateral striatum (DLS), we find that behavioral exploration to overcome consistent task errors is closely associated with tandem increases in M1 and DLS neural variability; subsequently, consistent ensemble patterning returns with convergence to a new successful strategy. We also show that compared to reliably patterned intracranial microstimulation in M1, variable stimulation patterns result in significantly greater movement variability. Our results thus indicate that motor and striatal areas can flexibly transition between two modes, reliable neural pattern generation for automatic and precise movements versus variable neural patterning for behavioral exploration.
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