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J Neurosci. 1991 May;11(5):1182-97.

Making arm movements within different parts of space: the premotor and motor cortical representation of a coordinate system for reaching to visual targets.

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Istituto di Fisiologia umana, Facoltà di Medicina e Chirurgia, Università degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza, Italy.


The activity of 156 individual arm-related neurons was studied in the premotor cortex (area 6) while monkeys made arm movements of similar directions within different parts of 3-dimensional space. This study was aimed at describing the relationship between premotor cortical cell activity and direction of arm movement and assessing the coordinate system underlying this relationship. We found that the activity of 152 (97.4%) cells varied in an orderly fashion with the direction of movement, in at least some region of the work space. Premotor cortical cells fired most for a given preferred direction and less for other directions of movement. These preferred directions covered the directional continuum in a uniform fashion across the work space. It was found that, as movements of similar directions were made within different parts of the work space, the cells' preferred directions changed their orientation. Although these changes had different magnitudes for different cells, at the population level, they followed closely the changes in orientation of the arm necessary to move the hand from one to another part of the work space. This shift of cells' preferred direction with the orientation of the arm in space has been observed with similar characteristics in the motor cortex (see Caminiti et al., 1990). In both premotor and motor cortices, neuronal movement population vectors provide a good description of movement direction. Unlike the individual cell preferred directions upon which they are based, movement population vectors did not change their spatial orientation across the work space, suggesting that they remain good predictors of movement direction regardless of the region of space in which movements are made. The firing frequency of both premotor and motor cortical neurons varied significantly with the position occupied by the hand in space. These static positional effects were observed in 88.5% of premotor and 91.8% of motor cortical cells. In a second task, monkeys made movements from differing origins to a common end point. This task was performed within 3 different parts of space and was aimed at dissociating movement direction from movement end point. It was found that in both premotor and motor cortices virtually all cells were related to the direction and not to the end point of movement. These data suggest that premotor and motor cortices use common mechanisms for coding arm movement direction. They also provide a basis for understanding the coordinate transformation required to move the hand toward visual targets in space.

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