To investigate neural mechanisms of movement, physiologists have analyzed the activity of task-related neurons in behaving animals. The relative onset latencies of neural activity have been scrutinized for evidence of a functional hierarchy of sequentially recruited centers, but experiments reveal that activity changes occur largely in parallel. Neurons whose activity covaries with movement parameters have been sought for evidence of explicit coding of parameters such as active force, limb displacement, and behavioral set. Neurons with recognizable relations to the task are typically selected from a larger population, ignoring those cells with complex relations to the task and unmodulated cells. Selective interpretations are also used to support the notion that different motor regions perform different motor functions; again, current evidence suggests that units with similar properties are distributed over widely different regions.
These coding issues are reexamined for premotoneuronal (PreM) cells, whose correlational links with motoneurons are revealed by spike-triggered averages. PreM cells are recruited over long times relative to their target muscles; they show diverse response patterns relative to the muscle force they produce; functionally disparate PreM cells such as afferent fibers and descending corticomotoneuronal and rubromotoneuronal cells can exhibit similar patterns. Neural mechanisms have been further elucidated by neural network simulations of sensorimotor behavior; the pre-output hidden units typically show diverse response patterns in relation to their target units. Thus, studies in which both the activity and the connectivity of the same units are known reveal that units with both simple and complex relations to the task contribute significantly to the output. This suggests that the search for explicit coding may be diverting us from understanding distributed neural mechanisms that operate without literal representations.