Motor cortex is required for flexible but not automatic motor sequences.

bioRxiv : the preprint server for biology(2023)

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How motor cortex contributes to motor sequence execution is much debated, with studies supporting disparate views. Here we probe the degree to which motor cortex's engagement depends on task demands, specifically whether its role differs for highly practiced, or 'automatic', sequences versus flexible sequences informed by external events. To test this, we trained rats to generate three-element motor sequences either by overtraining them on a single sequence or by having them follow instructive visual cues. Lesioning motor cortex revealed that it is necessary for flexible cue-driven motor sequences but dispensable for single automatic behaviors trained in isolation. However, when an automatic motor sequence was practiced alongside the flexible task, it became motor cortex-dependent, suggesting that subcortical consolidation of an automatic motor sequence is delayed or prevented when the same sequence is produced also in a flexible context. A simple neural network model recapitulated these results and explained the underlying circuit mechanisms. Our results critically delineate the role of motor cortex in motor sequence execution, describing the condition under which it is engaged and the functions it fulfills, thus reconciling seemingly conflicting views about motor cortex's role in motor sequence generation.
motor cortex
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