eLife digest | Uncertainty leads to persistent effects on reach representations in dorsal premotor cortex

Open accessCopyright infoDownload PDFDownload figuresRelated content

Uncertainty leads to persistent effects on reach representations in dorsal premotor cortex

eLife digest

Affiliation details

McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University, United States; Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, United States; Northwestern University, United States

Whether it is trying to find the light switch in a dimly lit room or reaching for your glasses when you wake in the morning, we often need to reach toward objects that we cannot see clearly. In these situations, we plan our movements based both on the limited sensory information that is available, as well as what we have learned from similar situations in the past.

The brain areas involved in using information to decide on the best movement plan appear to be different from those involved in actually executing that plan. One area in particular, called the dorsal premotor cortex (or PMd), is thought to help a person decide where to reach when they are presented with two or more alternative targets. However, it was not known how this brain area is involved in choosing a direction to reach when the targets are fuzzy, or unable to be seen clearly.

Dekleva et al. trained Rhesus macaque monkeys to reach in various directions, towards targets that were represented by fuzzy, uncertain visual cues. These targets were not simply positioned randomly; instead they were more likely to require reaches in certain directions over other directions. Because there were many such training and experimental sessions, the monkeys were able to learn where targets were more likely to be located. Dekleva et al. found that, like humans, the monkeys combined this knowledge from previous experience with the fuzzy visual information; like people, the monkeys also weighted each source of information based on how well they trusted it. For example, blurrier targets were treated as less trustworthy.

Further analysis showed that neurons in the PMd signaled the chosen direction well before the monkey began to reach. However, throughout the entire time the monkey was reaching, the same neurons also seemed to hold in reserve the other, less likely reach directions. In contrast, neurons in the area of the brain that directly controls movement – the primary motor cortex – only ever signaled the direction in which the monkey actually reached.

Further work is now needed to understand the decision-making process that appears to start in the PMd and resolve in the primary motor cortex. In particular, future experiments could explore why the retained information about other possible reach decisions persists throughout the movement, including if this helps the individual to rapidly correct errors or to slowly improve movements over time.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.14316.002