An Internal Neural Metronome In The Supplementary Motor Area

A catchy tune on the radio, and suddenly we are tapping our foot and moving our bodies to the rhythm of the music. We can follow a beat because our motor neurons, the nerve cells that control movements, work together in circuits.

During actions that require precise timing – such as dancing to a rhythm – the motor neurons within these circuits increase and decrease their activity in complex patterns.

But recent evidence shows that these motor neuron circuits also ‘switch on’ simply when we perceive a rhythm, even if we do not move to it. In fact, just imagining a rhythm triggers the same symphony of electrical activity in the brain.

How do motor neurons generate coordinated patterns of activity without movement or even an external stimulus?

Gamma Bursts

Jaime Cadena-Valencia, from the Institute of Neurobiology, National Autonomous University of Mexico, and colleagues set out to answer this question by training monkeys to follow a rhythm. The animals learned to track a dot that appeared alternately on the left and right sides of a touchscreen with a regular tempo. After a few repeats, the dot disappeared.

The monkeys then had to continue mentally tracking where the dot would have been. A group of neurons in a brain region called the supplementary motor area synchronized their activity with the dot.

Gamma bursts in maintenance intervals

Gamma bursts in maintenance intervals for the three tempos (500, 750, 1000 ms).
Credit: Jaime Cadena-Valencia, et al. CC-BY

Whenever the dot was due to appear, the neurons in the area showed a burst of rapid firing. These spikes of activity, called gamma bursts, helped the motor neurons to communicate with one another within their circuits.

The gamma bursts thus acted as an internal metronome, making it easier for the monkeys to follow the rhythm. These results should be a starting point for other studies to pinpoint exactly where and how this rhythmic activity arises, and how the brain uses gamma bursts to synchronize our movements to a tempo.

Jaime Cadena-Valencia, Otto García-Garibay, Hugo Merchant, Mehrdad Jazayeri, Victor de Lafuente
Entrainment and maintenance of an internal metronome in supplementary motor area
eLife 2018;7:e38983 doi: 10.7554/eLife.38983

Top Image: Jaime Cadena-Valencia, et al. CC-BY