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The aim of this study was to investigate the functional anatomy of distributed cortical and subcortical motor areas in the human brain that participate in the central control of overlearned complex sequential unimanual finger movements. On the basis of previous research in nonhuman primates, a principal involvement of basal ganglia medial premotor loops [corrected] was predicted for central control of finger sequences performed automatically. In pertinent areas, a correlation of activation levels with the complexity of a motor sequence was hypothesized. H2 15O positron emission tomography (PET) was used in a group of seven healthy male volunteers [mean age 32.0 +/- 10.4 yr] to determine brain regions where levels of regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) correlated with graded complexity levels of five different key-press sequences. All sequences were overlearned before PET and involved key-presses of fingers II-V of the right hand. Movements of individual fingers were kept constant throughout all five conditions by external pacing at 1-Hz intervals. Positive correlations of rCBF with increasing sequence complexity were identified in the contralateral rostral supplementary motor area (pre-SMA) and the associated pallido-thalamic loop, as well as in right parietal area 7 and ipsilateral primary motor cortex (M1). In contrast, while rCBF in contralateral M1 and [corrected] extensive parts of caudal SMA was increased compared with rest during task performance, significant correlated increases of rCBF with sequence complexity were not observed. Inverse correlations of rCBF with increasing sequence complexity were identified in mesial prefrontal-, medial temporal-, and anterior cingulate areas. The findings provide further evidence in humans supporting the notion of a segregation of SMA into functionally distinct subcomponents: although pre-SMA was differentially activated depending on the complexity of a sequence of learned finger movements, such modulation was not detectable in caudal SMA (except the most antero-superior part), implicating a motor executive role. Our observations of complexity-correlated rCBF increases in anterior globus pallidus suggest a specific role for the basal ganglia in the process of sequence facilitation and control. They may act to filter and focus input from motor cortical areas as patterns of action become increasingly complex.

Original publication




Journal article


J Neurophysiol

Publication Date





1070 - 1080


Adult, Basal Ganglia, Cerebrovascular Circulation, Fingers, Globus Pallidus, Humans, Male, Motor Activity, Motor Cortex, Oxygen Radioisotopes, Parietal Lobe, Psychomotor Performance, Somatosensory Cortex, Tomography, Emission-Computed