Role of primate magnocellular red nucleus neurons in controlling hand preshaping during reaching to grasp

P L van Kan, M L McCurdy
Journal of Neurophysiology 2001, 85 (4): 1461-78
Reaching to grasp is of fundamental importance to primate motor behavior and requires coordinating hand preshaping with limb transport and grasping. We aimed to clarify the role of cerebellar output via the magnocellular red nucleus (RNm) to the control of reaching to grasp. Rubrospinal fibers originating from RNm constitute one pathway by which cerebellar output influences spinal circuitry directly. We recorded discharge from individual forelimb RNm neurons while monkeys performed a reach-to-grasp task and two tasks that were similar to the reach-to-grasp task in trajectory, amplitude, and direction but did not include a grasp. One of these, the device task, elicited reaches while holding a handle, and the other, the free-reach task, elicited reaches that did not require any specific hand use for task performance. The results demonstrate that coordinated whole-limb reaching movements are associated with large discharge modulations of RNm neurons predominantly when hand use is included. Therefore RNm neurons can at best only make a minor contribution to the control of reaching movements that lack hand use. We evaluated relations between the discharge of individual RNm neurons and electromyographic (EMG) activity of forelimb muscles during the reach-to-grasp task by comparing times of peak RNm discharge to times of peak EMG activity. The results are consistent with the view that RNm discharge may contribute to EMG activity of both distal and proximal muscles during reaching to grasp especially digit extensor and limb elevation muscles. Relations between the discharge of individual RNm neurons and movements of the metacarpi-phalangeal (MCP), wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints during individual trials of task performance were quantified by parametric correlation analyses on a subset of neurons studied during the reach-to-grasp and free-reach tasks. The results indicate that MCP extensions were consistently preceded by bursts of RNm discharge, and strong correlations were observed between parameters of discharge and the duration, velocity, and amplitude of corresponding MCP extensions. In contrast, relations between discharge and movements of proximal joints were poorly represented, and RNm discharge was not related to the speed of limb transport. Based on our data and those of others, we hypothesize that cerebellar output via RNm is specialized for controlling hand use and conclude that RNm may contribute to the control of hand preshaping during reaching to grasp by activating muscle synergies that produce the appropriate MCP extension at the appropriate phase of limb transport.

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