Human posterior parietal cortex plans where to reach and what to avoid.
In this time-resolved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, we aimed to trace the neuronal correlates of covert planning processes that precede visually guided motor behavior. Specifically, we asked whether human posterior parietal cortex has prospective planning activity that can be distinguished from activity related to retrospective visual memory and attention. Although various electrophysiological studies in monkeys have demonstrated such motor planning at the level of parietal neurons, comparatively little support is provided by recent human imaging experiments. Rather, a majority of experiments highlights a role of human posterior parietal cortex in visual working memory and attention. We thus sought to establish a clear separation of visual memory and attention from processes related to the planning of goal-directed motor behaviors. To this end, we compared delayed-response tasks with identical mnemonic and attentional demands but varying degrees of motor planning. Subjects memorized multiple target locations, and in a random subset of trials targets additionally instructed (1) desired goals or (2) undesired goals for upcoming finger reaches. Compared with the memory/attention-only conditions, both latter situations led to a specific increase of preparatory fMRI activity in posterior parietal and dorsal premotor cortex. Thus, posterior parietal cortex has prospective plans for upcoming behaviors while considering both types of targets relevant for action: those to be acquired and those to be avoided.