When and why does motor preparation arise in recurrent neural network models of motor control?

  1. Computational and Biological Learning Lab, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, U.K.
  2. Meta Reality Labs


  • Reviewing Editor
    Jörn Diedrichsen
    Western University, London, Canada
  • Senior Editor
    Floris de Lange
    Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Nijmegen, Netherlands

Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

In this work, the authors investigate an important question - under what circumstances should a recurrent neural network optimised to produce motor control signals receive preparatory input before the initiation of a movement, even though it is possible to use inputs to drive activity just-in-time for movement?

This question is important because many studies across animal models have shown that preparatory activity is widespread in neural populations close to motor output (e.g. motor cortex / M1), but it isn't clear under what circumstances this preparation is advantageous for performance, especially since preparation could cause unwanted motor output during a delay.

They show that networks optimised under reasonable constraints (speed, accuracy, lack of pre-movement) will use input to seed the state of the network before movement and that these inputs reduce the need for ongoing input during the movement. By examining many different parameters in simplified models they identify a strong connection between the structure of the network and the amount of preparation that is optimal for control - namely, that preparation has the most value when nullspaces are highly observable relative to the readout dimension and when the controllability of readout dimensions is low. They conclude by showing that their model predictions are consistent with the observation in monkey motor cortex that even when a sequence of two movements is known in advance, preparatory activity only arises shortly before movement initiation.

Overall, this study provides valuable theoretical insight into the role of preparation in neural populations that generate motor output, and by treating input to motor cortex as a signal that is optimised directly this work is able to sidestep many of the problematic questions relating to estimating the potential inputs to motor cortex.

However, there are a number of issues regarding framing and technical limitations that would be useful for readers to keep in mind when interpreting the conclusions.

  1. It's important to keep in mind that this work involves simplified models of the motor system, and often the terminology for 'motor cortex' and 'models of motor cortex' are used interchangeably, which may mislead some readers. Similarly, the introduction fails in many cases to state what model system is being discussed (e.g. line 14, line 29, line 31), even though these span humans, monkeys, mice, and simulations, which all differ in crucial ways that cannot always be lumped together.
  2. At multiple points in the manuscript thalamic inputs during movement (in mice) is used as a motivation for examining the role of preparation. However, there are other more salient motivations, such as delayed sensory feedback from the limb and vision arriving in motor cortex, as well as ongoing control signals from other areas such as premotor cortex.
  3. Describing the main task in this work as a delayed reaching task is not justified without caveats (by the authors' own admission: line 687), since each network is optimised with a fixed delay period length. Although this is mentioned to the reader, it's not clear enough that the dynamics observed during the delay period will not resemble those in the motor cortex for typical delayed reaching tasks.
  4. A number of simplifications in the model may have crucial consequences for interpretation.
    a) Even following the toy examples in Figure 4, all the models in Figure 5 are linear, which may limit the generalisability of the findings.
    b) Crucially, there is no delayed sensory feedback in the model from the plant. Although this simplification is in some ways a strength, this decision allows networks to avoid having to deal with delayed feedback, which is a known component of closed-loop motor control and of motor cortex inputs and will have a large impact on the control policy.
  5. A key feature determining the usefulness of preparation is the direction of the readout dimension. However, all readouts had a similar structure (random gaussian initialization). Therefore, it would be useful to have more discussion regarding how the structure of the output connectivity would affect preparation, since the motor cortex certainly does not follow this output scheme.

Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

This work clarifies neural mechanisms that can lead to a phenomenology consistent with motor preparation in its broader sense. In this context, motor preparation refers to an activity that occurs before the corresponding movement. Another property often associated with preparatory activity is a correlation with global movement characteristics such as reach speed (Churchland et al., Neuron 2006), reach angle (Sun et al., Nature 2022), or grasp type (Meirhaeghe et al., Cell Reports 2023). Such activity has notably been observed in premotor and primary motor cortices, and it has been hypothesized to serve as an input to a motor execution circuit. The timing and mechanisms by which such 'preparatory' inputs are made available to motor execution circuits remain however unclear in general, especially in light of the presence of a 'trigger-like' signal that appears to relate to the transition from preparatory dynamics to execution activity (Kaufman et al. eNeuron 2016, Iganaki et al., Cell 2022, Zimnik and Churchland, Nature Neuroscience 2021).

The preparatory inputs have been hypothesized to fulfill one or several (non-mutually-exclusive) possible objectives. Two notable hypotheses are that these inputs could be shaped to maximize output accuracy under regularization of the input magnitude; or that they may help the flexible re-use of the neural machinery involved in the control of movements in different contexts.

Here, the authors investigate in detail how the former hypothesis may be compatible with the presence of early inputs in recurrent network models driving arm movements, and compare models to data.


The authors are able to deploy an in-depth evaluation of inputs that are optimized for producing an accurate output at a pre-defined time while using a regularization term on the input magnitude, in the case of movements that are thought to be controlled in a quasi-open loop fashion such as reaches.

First, the authors have identified that optimal control theory is a great framework to study this question as it provides methods to find and analyze exact solutions to this cost function in the case of models with linear dynamics. The authors not only use this framework to get an exact assessment of how much activity before movement start happens in large recurrent networks, but also give insight into the mechanisms by which it happens by dissecting in detail low-dimensional networks. The authors find that two key network properties - observability of the readout's nullspace and limited controllability - give rise to optimal inputs that are large before the start of the movement (while the corresponding network activity lies in the nullspace of the readout). Further, the authors numerically investigate the timing of optimized inputs in models with nonlinear dynamics, and find that pre-movement inputs can also arise in these more general networks. Finally, the authors point out some coarse-grained similarities between the pre-movement activity driven by the optimized inputs in some of the models they studied, and the phenomenology of preparation observed in the brain during single reaches and reach sequences. Overall, the authors deploy an impressive arsenal of tools and a very in-depth analysis of their models.


1. Though the optimal control theory framework is ideal to determine inputs that minimize output error while regularizing the input norm, it however cannot easily account for some other varied types of objectives - especially those that may lead to a complex optimization landscape. For instance, the reusability of parts of the circuit, sparse use of additional neurons when learning many movements, and ease of planning (especially under uncertainty about when to start the movement), may be alternative or additional reasons that could help explain the preparatory activity observed in the brain. It is interesting to note that inputs that optimize the objective chosen by the authors arguably lead to a trade-off in terms of other desirable objectives. Specifically, the inputs the authors derive are time-dependent, so a recurrent network would be needed to produce them and it may not be easy to interpolate between them to drive new movement variants. In addition, these inputs depend on the desired time of output and therefore make it difficult to plan, e.g. in circumstances when timing should be decided depending on sensory signals. Finally, these inputs are specific to the full movement chain that will unfold, so they do not permit reuse of the inputs e.g. in movement sequences of different orders.

2. Relatedly, if the motor circuits were to balance different types of objectives, the activity and inputs occurring before each movement may be broken down into different categories that may each specialize into one objective. For instance, previous work (Kaufman et al. eNeuron 2016, Iganaki et al., Cell 2022, Zimnik and Churchland, Nature Neuroscience 2021) has suggested that inputs occurring before the movement could be broken down into preparatory inputs 'stricto sensu' - relating to the planned characteristics of the movement - and a trigger signal, relating to the transition from planning to execution - irrespective of whether the movement is internally timed or triggered by an external event. The current work does not address which type(s) of early input may be labeled as 'preparatory' or may be thought of as a part of 'planning' computations.

3. While the authors rightly point out some similarities between the inputs that they derive and observed preparatory activity in the brain, notably during motor sequences, there are also some differences. For instance, while both the derived inputs and the data show two peaks during sequences, the data reproduced from Zimnik and Churchland show preparatory inputs that have a very asymmetric shape that really plummets before the start of the next movement, whereas the derived inputs have larger amplitude during the movement period - especially for the second movement of the sequence. In addition, the data show trigger-like signals before each of the two reaches. Finally, while the data show a very high correlation between the pattern of preparatory activity of the second reach in the double reach and compound reach conditions, the derived inputs appear to be more different between the two conditions. Note that the data would be consistent with separate planning of the two reaches even in the compound reach condition, as well as the re-use of the preparatory input between the compound and double reach conditions. Therefore, different motor sequence datasets - notably, those that would show even more coarticulation between submovements - may be more promising to find a tight match between the data and the author's inputs. Further analyses in these datasets could help determine whether the coarticulation could be due to simple filtering by the circuits and muscles downstream of M1, planning of movements with adjusted curvature to mitigate the work performed by the muscles while permitting some amount of re-use across different sequences, or - as suggested by the authors - inputs fully tailored to one specific movement sequence that maximize accuracy and minimize the M1 input magnitude.

4. Though iLQR is a powerful optimization method to find inputs optimizing the author's cost function, it also has some limitations. First, given that it relies on a linearization of the dynamics at each timestep, it has a limited ability to leverage potential advantages of nonlinearities in the dynamics. Second, the iLQR algorithm is not a biologically plausible learning rule and therefore it might be difficult for the brain to learn to produce the inputs that it finds. It remains unclear whether using alternative algorithms with different limitations - for instance, using variants of BPTT to train a separate RNN to produce the inputs in question - could impact some of the results.

5. Under the objective considered by the authors, the amount of input occurring before the movement might be impacted by the presence of online sensory signals for closed-loop control. It is therefore an open question whether the objective and network characteristics suggested by the authors could also explain the presence of preparatory activity before e.g. grasping movements that are thought to be more sensory-driven (Meirhaeghe et al., Cell Reports 2023).

Reviewer #3 (Public Review):

This study tackles an interesting topic from a new perspective. The manuscript is well-written, logical, and conceptually clear. The central topic regards the purpose of preparatory activity in motor & premotor cortex. Preparatory activity has long captured the imaginations of experimentalists because it is a window on an unknown internal process - a process that is informed by sensation and related to action but tied directly to neither. Preparatory activity was the first truly 'internal' form of activity to be studied in awake behaving animals. The meaning and nature of the internal preparatory process has long been debated. In the 1960's, it was thought to reflect the priming of reflex circuits and motoneurons. By the 1980's, it was understood to reflect 'motor programming', i.e., the readying of cortical movement-generating machinery. But why programming was needed, and might be accomplished during preparation, remained unclear. By the 2000s, preparatory activity was seen as initializing movement-generating dynamics, much as the initial state of a dynamical system governs its future evolution. This provided a mechanistic purpose for preparation, but didn't answer a fundamental question: why use that strategy at all? Why indirectly influence execution by creating a preparatory state when you could send inputs during execution and accomplish the same thing directly?

The authors point out that the many neural network models presently in existence do not address this question because they already assume that preparatory inputs are used. Thus, those models show that the preparatory strategy works, and that it matches the data in multiple ways, but they don't reveal why it is the right strategy. An additional issue with existing networks is that they potentially create an artificial dichotomy where inputs are divided into two types: preparation-creating and movement-creating. It would be more elegant if one simply assumed that motor cortex receives inputs that attempt to serve the needs of the animal, with preparation being an emergent phenomenon rather than being baked in from the beginning. In some ways the field is already starting to shift in this direction, with preparation being seen as a special case of a general phenomenon: inputs that arrive in the null-space of network outputs. However, this shift is still nascent, and no paper to date has really addressed this issue. Thus, the present study can be seen as being the first to take a fully modern view of preparation, where it emerges as part of the solution to a more general problem.

The study is clearly written and clearly presented, and I found both the results and the reasoning to be compelling, with some exceptions noted below. The authors demonstrate that many aspects of the empirical data can be accounted for as natural outcomes of a very simple assumption: that the inputs to motor cortex are optimized to create accurate motor-cortex output while being 'well-behaved' in the sense of remaining modest in magnitude. More broadly, the idea is that preparation emerges as a consequence of constraints on motor-cortex inputs. If upstream areas could magically control motor cortex any way they wanted, then there would be no need for preparation. The necessary patterns of execution activity could just be created directly by inputs at that time. However, when there exist constraints on inputs (i.e., on what upstream areas can do) preparation becomes a useful - perhaps necessary - strategy. By sending inputs early, upstream areas can leverage the dynamics of motor cortex in ways that would be harder to accomplish during movement.

The authors illustrate how a very simple constraint on inputs - a high 'cost' to large inputs - makes preparation a good strategy. Preparation isn't strictly necessary, but it produces a lower-cost solution (reduced input magnitude for a given level of accuracy). Consequently, preparation appears naturally, with a time-course of ~300 ms before movement onset. This late rise in preparation doesn't match the longer plateau most people are used to from studies that use a randomized instructed delay, but that actually makes sense. In those studies, the animal does not know when the go cue will be given, and must be ready for it to occur at any time. In contrast, the present study considers the situation where the time of future movement is known internally and is part of the optimization process. This more closely matches situations where the animal chooses when to move, and in those situations, preparation does indeed appear late in most cases. So the predictions of their simulations are qualitatively correct (which is all that is desired, given uncertainty regarding things like the right internal time-constants). Their simulations also successfully predict two bouts of preparation during sequence tasks, matching recent empirical findings.

The main strength of the study is its ability to elegantly explain well-known features of data in terms of simple normative principles. The study is thorough and careful in key ways. For example, they show that the emergence of preparation, in the service of satisfying the cost function, is a very general property that holds across a broad range of network types (including very simple toy networks and a variety of larger networks of different types). They also go to considerable trouble to show why cost is reduced by preparatory inputs, including illustrating different scenarios with different readout-vector orientations. The result is a conceptually clear study that conveys a fresh perspective on what preparation is and why it exists.

The main limitation of the study is that it focuses exclusively on one specific constraint - magnitude - that could limit motor-cortex inputs. This isn't unreasonable, but other constraints are at least as likely, if less mathematically tractable. The basic results of this study will probably be robust with regard such issues - generally speaking, any constraint on what can be delivered during execution will favor the strategy of preparing - but this robustness cuts both ways. It isn't clear that the constraint used in the present study - minimizing upstream energy costs - is the one that really matters. Upstream areas are likely to be limited in a variety of ways, including the complexity of inputs they can deliver. Indeed, one generally assumes that there are things that motor cortex can do that upstream areas can't do, which is where the real limitations should come from. Yet in the interest of a tractable cost function, the authors have built a system where motor cortex actually doesn't do anything that couldn't be done equally well by its inputs. The system might actually be better off if motor cortex were removed. About the only thing that motor cortex appears to contribute is some amplification, which is 'good' from the standpoint of the cost function (inputs can be smaller) but hardly satisfying from a scientific standpoint.

The use of a term that punishes the squared magnitude of control signals has a long history, both because it creates mathematical tractability and because it (somewhat) maps onto the idea that one should minimize the energy expended by muscles and the possibility of damaging them with large inputs. One could make a case that those things apply to neural activity as well, and while that isn't unreasonable, it is far from clear whether this is actually true (and if it were, why punish the square if you are concerned about ATP expenditure?). Even if neural activity magnitude an important cost, any costs should pertain not just to inputs but to motor cortex activity itself. I don't think the authors really wish to propose that squared input magnitude is the key thing to be regularized. Instead, this is simply an easily imposed constraint that is tractable and acts as a stand-in for other forms of regularization / other types of constraints. Put differently, if one could write down the 'true' cost function, it might contain a term related to squared magnitude, but other regularizing terms would by very likely to dominate. Using only squared magnitude is a reasonable way to get started, but there are also ways in which it appears to be limiting the results (see below).

I would suggest that the study explore this topic a bit. Is it possible to use other forms of regularization? One appealing option is to constrain the complexity of inputs; a long-standing idea is that the role of motor cortex is to take relatively simple inputs and convert them to complex time-evolving inputs suitable for driving outputs. I realize that exploring this idea is not necessarily trivial. The right cost-function term is not clear (should it relate to low-dimensionality across conditions, or to smoothness across time?) and even if it were, it might not produce a convex cost function. Yet while exploring this possibility might be difficult, I think it is important for two reasons. First, this study is an elegant exploration of how preparation emerges due to constraints on inputs, but at present that exploration focuses exclusively on one constraint. Second, at present there are a variety of aspects of the model responses that appear somewhat unrealistic. I suspect most of these flow from the fact that while the magnitude of inputs is constrained, their complexity is not (they can control every motor cortex neuron at both low and high frequencies). Because inputs are not complexity-constrained, preparatory activity appears overly complex and never 'settles' into the plateaus that one often sees in data. To be fair, even in data these plateaus are often imperfect, but they are still a very noticeable feature in the response of many neurons. Furthermore, the top PCs usually contain a nice plateau. Yet we never get to see this in the present study. In part this is because the authors never simulate the situation of an unpredictable delay (more on this below) but it also seems to be because preparatory inputs are themselves strongly time-varying. More realistic forms of regularization would likely remedy this.

At present, it is also not clear whether preparation always occurs even with no delay. Given only magnitude-based regularization, it wouldn't necessarily have to be. The authors should perform a subspace-based analysis like that in Figure 6, but for different delay durations. I think it is critical to explore whether the model, like monkeys, uses preparation even for zero-delay trials. At present it might or might not. If not, it may be because of the lack of more realistic constraints on inputs. One might then either need to include more realistic constraints to induce zero-delay preparation, or propose that the brain basically never uses a zero delay (it always delays the internal go cue after the preparatory inputs) and that this is a mechanism separate from that being modeled.

I agree with the authors that the present version of the model, where optimization knows the exact time of movement onset, produces a reasonably realistic timecourse of preparation when compared to data from self-paced movements. At the same time, most readers will want to see that the model can produce realistic looking preparatory activity when presented with an unpredictable delay. I realize this may be an optimization nightmare, but there are probably ways to trick the model into optimizing to move soon, but then forcing it to wait (which is actually what monkeys are probably doing). Doing so would allow the model to produce preparation under the circumstances where most studies have examined it. In some ways this is just window-dressing (showing people something in a format they are used to and can digest) but it is actually more that than, because it would show that the model can produce a reasonable plateau of sustained preparation. At present it isn't clear it can do this, for the reasons noted above. If it can't, regularizing complexity might help (and even if this can't be shown, it could be discussed).

In summary, I found this to be a very strong study overall, with a conceptually timely message that was well-explained and nicely documented by thorough simulations. I think it is critical to perform the test, noted above, of examining preparatory subspace activity across a range of delay durations (including zero) to see whether preparation endures as it does empirically. I think the issue of a more realistic cost function is also important, both in terms of the conceptual message and in terms of inducing the model to produce more realistic activity. Conceptually it matters because I don't think the central message should be 'preparation reduces upstream ATP usage by allowing motor cortex to be an amplifier'. I think the central message the authors wish to convey is that constraints on inputs make preparation a good strategy. Many of those constraints likely relate to the fact that upstream areas can't do things that motor cortex can do (else you wouldn't need a motor cortex) and it would be good if regularization reflected that assumption. Furthermore, additional forms of regularization would likely improve the realism of model responses, in ways that matter both aesthetically and conceptually. Yet while I think this is an important issue, it is also a deep and tricky one, and I think the authors need considerable leeway in how they address it. Many of the cost-function terms one might want to use may be intractable. The authors may have to do what makes sense given technical limitations. If some things can't be done technically, they may need to be addressed in words or via some other sort of non-optimization-based simulation.

Specific comments

As noted above, it would be good to show that preparatory subspace activity occurs similarly across delay durations. It actually might not, at present. For a zero ms delay, the simple magnitude-based regularization may be insufficient to induce preparation. If so, then the authors would either have to argue that a zero delay is actually never used internally (which is a reasonable argument) or show that other forms of regularization can induce zero-delay preparation.

I agree with the authors that prior modeling work was limited by assuming the inputs to M1, which meant that prior work couldn't address the deep issue (tackled here) of why there should be any preparatory inputs at all. At the same time, the ability to hand-select inputs did provide some advantages. A strong assumption of prior work is that the inputs are 'simple', such that motor cortex must perform meaningful computations to convert them to outputs. This matters because if inputs can be anything, then they can just be the final outputs themselves, and motor cortex would have no job to do. Thus, prior work tried to assume the simplest inputs possible to motor cortex that could still explain the data. Most likely this went too far in the 'simple' direction, yet aspects of the simplicity were important for endowing responses with realistic properties. One such property is a large condition-invariant response just before movement onset. This is a very robust aspect of the data, and is explained by the assumption of a simple trigger signal that conveys information about when to move but is otherwise invariant to condition. Note that this is an implicit form of regularization, and one very different from that used in the present study: the input is allowed to be large, but constrained to be simple. Preparatory inputs are similarly constrained to be simple in the sense that they carry only information about which condition should be executed, but otherwise have little temporal structure. Arguably this produces slightly too simple preparatory-period responses, but the present study appears to go too far in the opposite direction. I would suggest that the authors do what they can to address these issue via simulations and/or discussion. I think it is fine if the conclusion is that there exist many constraints that tend to favor preparation, and that regularizing magnitude is just one easy way of demonstrating that. Ideally, other constraints would be explored. But even if they can't be, there should be some discussion of what is missing - preparatory plateaus, a realistic condition-invariant signal tied to movement onset - under the present modeling assumptions.

On line 161, and in a few other places, the authors cite prior work as arguing for "autonomous internal dynamics in M1". I think it is worth being careful here because most of that work specifically stated that the dynamics are likely not internal to M1, and presumably involve inter-area loops and (at some latency) sensory feedback. The real claim of such work is that one can observe most of the key state variables in M1, such that there are periods of time where the dynamics are reasonably approximated as autonomous from a mathematical standpoint. This means that you can estimate the state from M1, and then there is some function that predicts the future state. This formal definition of autonomous shouldn't be conflated with an anatomical definition.

  1. Howard Hughes Medical Institute
  2. Wellcome Trust
  3. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
  4. Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation