OVERVIEW OF THE MOTOR SYSTEMJames Knierim, Ph.D.
Much of the brain and nervous system is devoted to the processing of sensory input, inorder to construct detailed representations of the external environment. Through vision,audition, somatosensation, and the other senses, we perceive the world and our relationship to it.This elaborate processing would be of limited value, however, unless we had a way to act uponthe environment that we are sensing, whether that action consist of running away from apredator; seeking shelter against the rain or wind; searching for food when one is hungry;moving one’s lips and vocal cords in order to communicate with others; or performing thecountless other varieties of actions that make up our daily lives. In some cases the relationshipbetween the sensory input and the motor output are simple and direct; for example, touching ahot stove elicits an immediate withdrawal of the hand (Fig. 1). Usually, however, our consciousactions require not only sensory input but a host of other cognitive processes that allow us tochoose the most appropriate motor output for the given circumstances. In each case, the finaloutput is a set of commands to certain muscles in the body to exert force against some otherobject or forces (e.g., gravity). This entire process falls under the category of
Some Necessary Components of Proper Motor Control(1) Volition.
The motor system must generate movements that are adaptive and thataccomplish the goals of the organism. These goals are evaluated and set by high-order areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex. The motor system must transform these goals anddesired movements into the appropriate activations of muscles to perform the desired activity.
(2) Coordination of signals to many muscle groups.
Few movements are restricted tothe activation of a single muscle. Rather, most movements result from the coordinated activityof different muscle groups. The act of moving your hand from inside your pocket to a positionin front of you requires the coordinated activity of the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. Making thesame movement while removing a 10-lb weight from your pocket may result in the sametrajectory of your hand, but will require different sets of forces on the muscles that make themovement. The task of the motor system is to determine the necessary forces and coordinationat each joint in order to produce the final, smooth motion of the arm.
Fig. 1. Sensory receptors provide information about theenvironment, which is then used to produce action to changethe environment. Sometimes the pathway from sensation toaction is direct, as in a reflex. In most cases, however,cognitive processing occurs to make actions adaptive andappropriate for the particular situation.