Flexible neural control of motor units

Najja J. Marshall, Joshua I. Glaser, Eric M. Trautmann, Elom A. Amematsro, Sean M. Perkins, Michael N. Shadlen, L. F. Abbott, John P. Cunningham, Mark M. Churchland*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Voluntary movement requires communication from cortex to the spinal cord, where a dedicated pool of motor units (MUs) activates each muscle. The canonical description of MU function rests upon two foundational tenets. First, cortex cannot control MUs independently but supplies each pool with a common drive. Second, MUs are recruited in a rigid fashion that largely accords with Henneman’s size principle. Although this paradigm has considerable empirical support, a direct test requires simultaneous observations of many MUs across diverse force profiles. In this study, we developed an isometric task that allowed stable MU recordings, in a rhesus macaque, even during rapidly changing forces. Patterns of MU activity were surprisingly behavior-dependent and could be accurately described only by assuming multiple drives. Consistent with flexible descending control, microstimulation of neighboring cortical sites recruited different MUs. Furthermore, the cortical population response displayed sufficient degrees of freedom to potentially exert fine-grained control. Thus, MU activity is flexibly controlled to meet task demands, and cortex may contribute to this ability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1492-1504
Number of pages13
JournalNature neuroscience
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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