During sensorimotor learning, neuronal networks change to optimize the associations between action and perception. In this study, we examine how the brain harnesses neuronal patterns that correspond to the current action-perception state during learning. To this end, we recorded activity from motor cortex while monkeys either performed a familiar motor task (movement-state) or learned to control the firing rate of a target neuron using a brain-machine interface (BMI-state). Before learning, monkeys were placed in an observation-state, where no action was required. We found that neuronal patterns during the BMI-state were markedly different from the movement-state patterns. BMI-state patterns were initially similar to those in the observation-state and evolved to produce an increase in the firing rate of the target neuron. The overall activity of the non-target neurons remained similar after learning, suggesting that excitatory-inhibitory balance was maintained. Indeed, a novel neural-level reinforcement-learning network model operating in a chaotic regime of balanced excitation and inhibition predicts our results in detail. We conclude that during BMI learning, the brain can adapt patterns corresponding to the current action-perception state to gain rewards. Moreover, our results show that we can predict activity changes that occur during learning based on the pre-learning activity. This new finding may serve as a key step toward clinical brain-machine interface applications to modify impaired brain activity.
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