Single-trial neural dynamics are dominated by richly varied movements
When experts are immersed in a task, do their brains prioritize task-related activity? Most efforts to understand neural activity during well-learned tasks focus on cognitive computations and specific task-related movements. We wondered whether task-performing animals explore a broader movement landscape, and how this impacts neural activity. We characterized movements using video and other sensors and measured neural activity using widefield and two-photon imaging. Cortex-wide activity was dominated by movements, especially uninstructed movements, reflecting unknown priorities of the animal. Some uninstructed movements were aligned to trial events. Accounting for them revealed that neurons with similar trial-averaged activity often reflected utterly different combinations of cognitive and movement variables. Other movements occurred idiosyncratically, accounting for trial-by-trial fluctuations that are often considered “noise”. This held true for extracellular Neuropixels recordings in cortical and subcortical areas. Our observations argue that animals execute expert decisions while performing richly varied, uninstructed movements that profoundly shape neural activity.
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