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What Is the Premotor Cortex?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated Jan 30, 2024
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In the human brain, the premotor cortex consists of interconnected areas within the primary motor cortex, which is located in the frontal lobe of the brain. The word “motor” refers to function of the areas, which is to send messages that direct movements of the body to accomplish specific tasks. The premotor cortex has a lateral and medial area. Each of the two areas is connected by neural pathways, which function like a series of electrical wires, to the primary motor cortex. The lateral area directs physical movement in response to external stimulus, while the medial area responds to internal stimulus from the brain itself and relays the intent to perform a particular physical act.

Neurons are the basic structural units of the nervous system. The majority of the neurons in the lateral area are thought to be linked to the occurrence of motor functions such as grasping an object. Research involving monkeys has generally supported this conclusion. When monkeys were trained to reach in different directions following a visual cue, the neurons in the lateral area began to “fire,” or transmit information, more rapidly in the time between the cue and the physical act of reaching. This indicated that the physical movement was in response to the external stimulus of the cue.

The medial area of the premotor cortex is also involved with body movement and motor skills. This area, however, is thought to operate on internal instead of external stimulus. Researchers point to the fact that monkeys with the medial area removed show a marked reduction in the amount of physical movements initiated by the monkeys themselves. At the same time, physical movement in response to external cues stayed the same. This indicated that the stored information in the medial area relies on its own encoding to perform specific movements.

Imaging studies suggest that the medial area functions much the same way in humans. The medial area activates when test subjects perform motor tasks from memory. This is true even in the absence of any visual cues or written or verbal instructions.

Studies of the human brain also support the connection between the motor cortex and physical movement. Patients with damage to the frontal lobe have difficulty learning to select a specified movement based on visual cues. This difficulty arises even when the patient understands the instructions and eventually performs the correct movement. Individuals with premotor cortex lesions may also show difficulty in following visual or verbal commands to perform a movement prompted externally.

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Discussion Comments
By hamje32 — On Mar 18, 2012

@NathanG - What I take away from this explanation of the regions of the brain is that if you have your medial area removed, you lose internal motivation.

You don’t do stuff on your own; you can only respond to other people’s cues. To me this is like living in a vegetative state, even though technically you may not be in that condition. To live without motivation is to live without purpose in life, in my opinion.

By NathanG — On Mar 17, 2012

@David09 - Yes, but his primary visual cortex is still functioning on both levels. I don’t think there is any damage to that part of the brain that responds to visual cues. He is simply paralyzed.

I don’t know enough about his condition to understand what damage he has experienced to bring about paralysis. But it’s a good thing that he has access to technology which can still help him to communicate, even if it’s through a computer voice. The point is that he is still interacting with the real world, in his own way.

By David09 — On Mar 16, 2012

The prefrontal cortex serves a vital function indeed. Both the lateral and medial area are important. However I am willing to go out on a limb here and say that the medial area is more important than the two.

Don’t get me wrong – they’re both important, but I think the medial area is slightly more so, because it governs responses to internal stimuli. Without internal stimuli, you have no life, for all practical purposes.

Take as an example the famed physicist Stephen Hawking. He is in an unfortunately paralyzed state, meaning that he has little physical movement (controlled by the lateral area).

Yet his mind is as sharp as ever. The man is a genius. He can still think and come up with new equations for science’s most pressing problems. These insights are from the inside out, not necessarily a result of visual cues.

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