Learning-induced improvement in encoding and decoding of specific movement directions by neurons in the primary motor cortex

Many recent studies describe learning-related changes in sensory and motor areas, but few have directly probed for improvement in neuronal coding after learning. We used information theory to analyze single-cell activity from the primary motor cortex of monkeys, before and after learning a local rotational visuomotor task. We show that after learning, neurons in the primary motor cortex conveyed more information about the direction of movement and did so with relation to their directional sensitivity. Similar to recent findings in sensory systems, this specific improvement in encoding is correlated with an increase in the slope of the neurons’ tuning curve. We further demonstrate that the improved information after learning enables a more accurate reconstruction of movement direction from neuronal populations. Our results suggest that similar mechanisms govern learning in sensory and motor areas and provide further evidence for a tight relationship between the locality of learning and the properties of neurons; namely, cells only show plasticity if their preferred direction is near the training one. The results also suggest that simple learning tasks can enhance the performance of brain–machine interfaces.

Authors: Rony Paz, Eilon Vaadia
Year of publication: 2004
Journal: PLoS Biol. 2004 Feb; 2(2): e45.

Link to publication:


“Working memory”