Motor Cortex Embeds Muscle-like Commands in an Untangled Population Response

This week we discussed a recent publication by Abigail Russo from Mark Churchland’s lab. The authors examined primary motor cortex (M1) population responses and EMG activity from primates performing a novel cycling task. The task required the animal to rotate a pedal (like riding a bicycle, except with one’s arm) a fixed number of rotations. There were several task conditions, including pedaling forward and backward.

The authors found that while M1 neural activity contained components of muscle activity (e.g. trial-averaged EMG activity could be accurately predicted by linear combinations of the trial-averaged neural activity) the dominant structure present in the neural population response was not muscle-like. They came to this conclusion by examining the top principal component projections of the neural activity and the EMG activity, where they found that the former co-rotated for forward and backward pedaling while the later counter-rotated. This discrepancy in rotation direction is inconsistent with the notation that neural activity encodes force or kinematic commands.

Based on this observation, the authors proposed a novel hypothesis: the dominant, non-muscle-like activity patterns in M1 exist so as to “detangle” the representation of the muscle-like activity patterns. A rough analogy would be something like a phonograph, whose dominant dynamics are rotating, but which only serve to lay out a coding direction (normal to the rotation) which can be “read-out” in a simple way by the phonograph needle. The authors show with network models that a “detangled” response has the desirable property of noise-robustness.

The following toy-model from the paper illustrates the idea of “tangled-ness.” Imagine that a population of neurons must generate output 1 and output 2 depicted below. If the population represented those signals directly (depicted in the leftmost phase portrait) in a 2-dimensional space, the trajectory would trace out a “figure-8,” a highly tangled trajectory and one that cannot be generated by an autonomous dynamical system (which the authors assume more-or-less accurately caricatures the dynamical properties of M1). In order to untangle the neural representation (depicted in the rightmost phase portrait), the neural activity needs to add an extra, third dimension which resides in the null space of the output. Now, these dynamics can be generated autonomously and a linear projection of them can generate the output.


The authors directly compute a measure of tangling within the neural data and the EMG data. The metric is the following:

Q(t) = \text{max}_{t^\prime} \frac{|| \dot x_t - \dot x_{t^\prime}||}{|| x_t - x_{t^\prime} || + \epsilon}.

It can be summarized in the following way: identify two moments in time where the state is very similar, but where the derivative of the state is very different. Such points are exemplified by the intersection of the “figure-8” trajectory above, since the intersection is two identical states with very different derivatives. Across multiple animals, species and motor tasks the authors found a consistent relationship: neural activity is less tangled than EMG activity (as shown below). The authors note that a tangled EMG response is acceptable or perhaps even desirable, since EMG reflects incoming commands and therefore does not need to abide by the requirements that an autonomous dynamical system (like M1) does.


Based on these analyses, the authors conclude that the dominant signals present in M1 population activity principally perform a computational role, by untangling the representation of muscle-like signals that can be read-out approximately linearly by the muscles.

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