In this article, the authors show that the neural representation for control of a neuroprosthetic device undergoes a process of consolidation, after which it is stable, readily recalled, and resistant to interference.
Cortical control of neuroprosthetic devices is known to require neuronal adaptations. It remains unclear whether a stable cortical representation for prosthetic function can be stored and recalled in a manner that mimics our natural recall of motor skills. Especially in light of the mixed evidence for a stationary neuron-behavior relationship in cortical motor areas, understanding this relationship during long-term neuroprosthetic control can elucidate principles of neural plasticity as well as improve prosthetic function. Here, we paired stable recordings from ensembles of primary motor cortex neurons in macaque monkeys with a constant decoder that transforms neural activity to prosthetic movements. Proficient control was closely linked to the emergence of a surprisingly stable pattern of ensemble activity, indicating that the motor cortex can consolidate a neural representation for prosthetic control in the presence of a constant decoder. The importance of such a cortical map was evident in that small perturbations to either the size of the neural ensemble or to the decoder could reversibly disrupt function. Moreover, once a cortical map became consolidated, a second map could be learned and stored. Thus, long-term use of a neuroprosthetic device is associated with the formation of a cortical map for prosthetic function that is stable across time, readily recalled, resistant to interference, and resembles a putative memory engram.
Brain–machine interfaces (BMIs) have the potential to revolutionize the care of neurologically impaired patients. Numerous studies have now shown the feasibility of direct “brain control” of a neuroprosthetic device, yet it remains unclear whether the neural representation for prosthetic control can become consolidated and remain stable over time. This question is especially intriguing given the evidence demonstrating that the neural representation for natural movements can be unstable: BMIs provide a window into the plasticity of cortical circuits in awake-behaving subjects. Here, we show that long-term neuroprosthetic control leads to the formation of a remarkably stable cortical map. Interestingly, this map has the putative attributes of a memory trace, namely, it is stable across time, readily recalled, and resistant to the storage of a second map. The demonstration of such a cortical map for prosthetic control indicates that neuroprosthetic devices could eventually be controlled through the effortless recall of motor memory in a manner that mimics natural skill acquisition and motor control.