Multi-dimensional tuning in motor cortical neurons during active behavior

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A region within songbird cortex, AId (dorsal intermediate arcopallium), is functionally analogous to motor cortex in mammals and has been implicated in song learning during development. Non-vocal factors such as visual and social cues are known to mediate song learning and performance, yet previous chronic-recording studies of regions important for song behavior have focused exclusively on neural activity in relation to song production. Thus, we have little understanding of the range of non-vocal information that single neurons may encode. We made chronic recordings in AId of freely behaving juvenile zebra finches and evaluated neural activity during diverse motor behaviors throughout entire recording sessions, including song production as well as hopping, pecking, preening, fluff-ups, beak interactions, scratching, and stretching. These movements are part of natural behavioral repertoires and are important components of both song learning and courtship behavior. A large population of AId neurons showed significant modulation of activity during singing. In addition, single neurons demonstrated heterogeneous response patterns during multiple movements (including excitation during one movement type and suppression during another), and some neurons showed differential activity depending on the context in which movements occurred. Moreover, we found evidence of neurons that did not respond during discrete movements but were nonetheless modulated during active behavioral states compared to quiescence. Our results suggest that AId neurons process both vocal and non-vocal information, highlighting the importance of considering the variety of multi-modal factors that can contribute to vocal motor learning during development.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Motor cortex across taxa receives highly integrated, multi-modal information and has been implicated in both execution and acquisition of complex motor skills, yet studies of motor cortex typically employ restricted behavioral paradigms that target select movement parameters, preventing wider assessment of the diverse sensorimotor factors that can affect motor cortical activity. Recording in AId of freely behaving juvenile songbirds that are actively engaged in sensorimotor learning offers unique advantages for elucidating the functional role of motor cortical neurons. The results demonstrate that a diverse array of factors modulate motor cortical activity and lay important groundwork for future investigations of how multi-modal information is integrated in motor cortical regions to contribute to learning and execution of complex motor skills.

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