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9.4: Motor Circuitry- Neural Structures and Pathways

  • Page ID
    116196
  • This page is a draft and under active development. Please forward any questions, comments, and/or feedback to the ASCCC OERI (oeri@asccc.org).

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    Learning Objectives
    • Identify the main structures of neural motor circuits at the cortical, subcortical, and spinal levels
    • Describe the main functional roles of the basal ganglia, premotor area, and motor cortex
    • Apply knowledge of functional cortical anatomy to the control of fine and gross body movements

    Neuroanatomy of Motor Systems

    The motor system controls all of our skeletal muscle movement and more. There are multiple levels of control. Within the spinal cord, simple reflexes can function without higher input from the brain. Slightly more complex spinal control occurs when central pattern generators function during repetitive movements like walking. The motor, premotor and supplementary cortices in the brain are responsible for the planning and execution of voluntary movements. And finally, the basal ganglia and cerebellum modulate the responses of the neurons in the motor cortex to help with coordination, motor learning, and balance.

    Illustration of spinal cord and brains showing regions of motor control. Details in text.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Motor output is controlled at multiple levels: A. Spinal cord and spinal neurons, B. Motor (dark blue) and premotor/supplementary motor cortices (light blue with supplementary motor located in top portion), C. Basal ganglia (a subcortical structure shown in light blue) and cerebellum (yellow). ‘Motor Control Levels’ by Casey Henley is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.

    Cortical Anatomy of Movement

    Much of the cortex is actually involved in the planning of voluntary movement. Sensory information, particularly the dorsal stream of the visual and somatosensory pathways, is processed in the posterior parietal lobe where visual, tactile, and proprioceptive information is integrated.

    Illustration of the brain showing sensory information traveling to the posterior parietal lobe. Details in caption.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Information from multiple sensory systems is processed in the posterior parietal lobe. Projections are sent from the primary somatosensory and primary visual cortices. ‘Posterior Parietal by Casey Henley is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.

    Connections from the posterior parietal lobe are then sent to both the premotor regions and the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, which is located in the front of the brain in the frontal lobe, plays an important role in higher level cognitive functions like planning, critical thinking, and understanding the consequences of our behaviors. The premotor area lies just anterior to the primary motor cortex. This region helps plan and organize movement and makes decisions about which actions should be used for a situation.

    Illustration of the brain showing an information pathway from the posterior parietal frontal lobe. Details in caption.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Sensory information from the posterior parietal is processed in the prefrontal cortex and premotor area, both located in the frontal cortex. These areas then send information to the primary motor cortex located in the precentral gyrus. ‘Motor Regions’ by Casey Henley is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.

    Role of Premotor Area

    The premotor regions send some axons directly to lower motor neurons in the spinal cord using the same pathways as the motor cortex. However, the premotor cortex also plays an important role in the planning of movement. Two experimental designs have demonstrated this role. Monkeys were trained on a panel that had one set of lights in a row on top and one set of buttons that could also light up in a row on the bottom. The monkeys would watch for a top row light to turn on. This would indicate that within a few seconds, the button directly below would light up. When the button turned on, the monkeys were supposed to push the button.

    Therefore, there were two light triggers in the experiment. The first required no motor movement from the monkey but did give the monkey information about where a motor movement would be needed in the near future. The second required the monkey to move to push the button. When brain activity was measured during this study, neurons in the premotor cortex became active when the first light trigger turned on, well before any movement actually took place (Weinrich and Wise, 1928).

    Illustration of an experiment testing the firing rate in the premotor cortex in preparation of movement. Details in caption and text.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): (A) Monkeys were trained to use a light panel. When lit, a light located in the top row informed the monkey that the button directly below would light up soon. Shortly after one of the top row lights turned on, the button directly below it would turn on, and the monkey would need to push that button for a reward. (B) When no lights are lit, premotor neurons fire at a baseline rate, and the monkey does not move. Neurons located in the premotor cortex increase action potential firing rate when the top row light turns on, even though the monkey makes no movement. The firing stops shortly after the monkey moves to push the bottom button after it turns on. (Based on Weinrich and Wise, 1928) ‘Light Panel Experiment’ by Casey Henley is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.

    In another experiment, people were trained to move their fingers in a specific pattern. Cerebral blood flow was then measured when they repeated the finger pattern and when they only imagined repeating the finger pattern. When the movement was only imagined and not actually executed, the premotor regions along with parts of the prefrontal cortex were activated (Roland, et al, 1980).

    Illustration of brain activity in response to either moving fingers or imagining moving the fingers. Details in caption and text.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): People were trained to move their fingers in a pattern. When the pattern was repeated, brain activity was seen in the primary motor cortex, along with the premotor area and prefrontal cortex. When the pattern was only imagined, and no finger movement took place, brain activity was seen in the premotor area and prefrontal cortex. (Based on Roland, et al, 1980) ‘Finger Movement Experiment’ by Casey Henley is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.

    These studies show that the premotor cortex is active prior to the execution of movement, indicating that it plays an important role in the planning of movement. The posterior parietal, prefrontal, and premotor regions, though, also communicate with a subcortical region called the basal ganglia to fully construct the movement plan. The basal ganglia are covered in the next chapter.

    Role of Motor Cortex

    Once the plan for movement has been created, the primary motor cortex is responsible for the execution of that action. The primary motor cortex lies just anterior to the primary somatosensory cortex in the precentral gyrus located in the frontal lobe.

    Illustration of the brain showing the location of the primary motor cortex. Details in caption.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): The primary motor cortex is located in the frontal lobe in the precentral gyrus, just anterior to the central sulcus. ‘Primary Motor Cortex’ by Casey Henley is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.

    Like the somatosensory cortex, the motor cortex is organized by a somatotopic map in that different areas of the body are controlled by distinct areas of the motor cortex. However, the motor cortex does not map onto the body in such an exact way as does the somatosensory system. It is believed that upper motor neurons in the motor cortex control multiple lower motor neurons in the spinal cord that innervate multiple muscles. This results in activation of an upper motor neuron causing excitation or inhibition in different neurons at once, indicating that the primary motor cortex is responsible for movements and not simply activation of one muscle. Stimulation of motor neurons in monkeys can lead to complex motions like bringing the hand to the mouth or moving into a defensive position (Graziano et al, 2005).

    File:Figure 35 03 04.jpg
     
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Different regions of the motor cortex control different muscle groups and their neighboring regions control neighboring muscle groups. Although the right hemisphere is shown, a mirror-image exists in the left hemisphere as well. Note that all areas of the body that have voluntary motor control are represented on the primary motor cortex. License: CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
    Descending Motor Pathways from Primary Motor Cortex to Spinal Cord
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Descending Motor Pathways from Primary Motor Cortex to Spinal Cord. By BruceBlaus CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

    BASAL GANGLIA

    The basal ganglia are a group of subcortical nuclei, meaning groups of neurons that lie below the cerebral cortex. The basal ganglia is comprised of several nuclei including the caudate nucleus, putamen, and the globus pallidus. Another nucleus typically associated with the Basal Ganglia is the subthalamic nucleus. The substantia nigra of the midbrain provides dopaminergic input to these areas.

    The basal ganglia are primarily associated with motor control, since motor disorders, such as Parkinson’s or Huntington’s diseases stem from dysfunction of neurons within the basal ganglia. For voluntary motor behavior, the basal ganglia are involved in the initiation or suppression of behavior and can regulate movement through modulating activity in the thalamus and cortex. In addition to motor control, the basal ganglia also communicate with non-motor regions of the cerebral cortex and play a role in other behaviors such as emotional and cognitive processing.

    Illustration of a coronal section of the brain showing the location of the basal ganglia and region names. Details in caption.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): The basal ganglia are subcortical structures located at the base of the forebrain. They are comprised of the caudate and putamen, which both make up the striatum, as well as the globus pallidus, substantia nigra, and subthalamic nucleus. ‘Basal Ganglia’ by Casey Henley is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.

    Basal Ganglia Input

    The majority of information processed by the basal ganglia enters through the striatum. The principal source of input to the basal ganglia is from the cerebral cortex. This input is glutamatergic (i.e. uses glutamate as its neurotransmitter) and therefore, excitatory. The substantia nigra is also a region with critical projections to the striatum and is the main source of dopaminergic input. Dopamine plays an important role in basal ganglia function. Parkinson’s disease results when dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra degenerate and no longer send appropriate inputs to the striatum. Dopamine projections can have either excitatory or inhibitory effects in the striatum, depending on the type of metabotropic dopamine receptor the striatal neuron expresses. Dopamine action at a neuron that expresses the D1 receptor is excitatory. Dopamine action at a neuron that expresses the D2 receptor is inhibitory.

    Basal Ganglia Output

    The primary output region of the basal ganglia is the internal segment of the globus pallidus. This region sends inhibitory GABAergic projections to nuclei in the thalamus. This inhibitory output has a tonic, constant firing rate, which allows the basal ganglia output to both increase and decrease depending on the situation. The thalamus then projects back out to the cerebral cortex, primarily to motor areas.

    Basal Ganglia and associated structures
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Basal Ganglia and Associated Structures. CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

    Attributions:


    This page titled 9.4: Motor Circuitry- Neural Structures and Pathways is shared under a mixed license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Multiple Authors (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .