Theses Doctoral

Flexible Corticospinal Control of Muscles

Marshall, Najja

The exceptional abilities of top-tier athletes – from Simone Biles’ dizzying gymnastics to LeBron James’ gravity-defying bounds – can easily lead one to forget to marvel at the exceptional breadth of everyday movements. Whether holding a cup of coffee, reaching out to grab a falling object, or cycling at a quick clip, every motor action requires activating multiple muscles with the appropriate intensity and timing to move each limb or counteract the weight of an object. These actions are planned and executed by the motor cortex, which transmits its intentions to motoneurons in the spinal cord, which ultimately drive muscle contractions. A central problem in neuroscience is precisely how neural activity in cortex and the spinal cord gives rise to this diverse range of behaviors. At the level of spinal cord, this problem is considered to be well understood.

A foundational tenet in motor control asserts that motoneurons are controlled by a single input to which they respond in a reliable and predictable manner to drive muscle activity, akin to the way that depressing a gas pedal by the same degree accelerates a car to a predictable speed. Theories of how motor cortex flexibly generates different behaviors are less firmly developed, but the available evidence indicates that cortical neurons are coordinated in a similarly simplistic, well-preserved manner. Yet a potential complication for both these old and new theories are the relative paucity of diverse behaviors during which motor cortex and spinal motoneurons have been studied. In this dissertation, I present results from studying these two neuronal populations during a broader range of behaviors than previously considered. These results indicate, in essence, that diverse behaviors involve greater complexity and flexibility in cortical and spinal neural activity than indicated by current theories.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Neurobiology and Behavior
Thesis Advisors
Churchland, Mark M.
Abbott, Larry F.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 19, 2021