New complex motor skills are acquired following practice and this is associated with changes in brain activation. During the early cognitive stage, rapid improvements in movement accuracy and timing occur. Further training leads to automaticity, allowing us to perform the movement without even thinking about it. Several regions in the brain become activated when controlling our movements, and these regions differ according to the mental effort that is required to perform them. Accordingly, brain areas involved in skillful performance are not identical in early and late practice phases.
Interestingly, Rémy and colleagues report in one of the latest issue of Cortex how acquisition of a new skill influences performance of preexisting movements. In particular, it is shown that these preferred movements may temporarily require increased mental effort to be accurately executed, to suppress or ‘inhibit’ the newly acquired motor pattern from intruding into the preexisting pattern. This supports the dynamic and integrated nature of the general landscape for memory of motor skills.
In this fMRI study, learning-related cerebral activation changes during the acquisition of a new complex bimanual coordination pattern were examined, i.e., the 90° out-of-phase pattern (90Ø). Furthermore, the Authors investigated whether practice of this new pattern influenced the neural correlates associated with performance of a preferred intrinsic pattern. Twelve young healthy subjects were intensively trained on the 90Ø task, and underwent two fMRI scanning sessions in early (PRE) and late (POST) learning.
Scanning sessions included performance of the trained 90Ø pattern, as well as the nontrained intrinsic in-phase pattern (InØ). Kinematics registered during training and scanning experiments showed that the new 90Ø pattern was acquired successfully, resulting in learning-related brain activation changes. Activation decreases were observed in the right prefrontal cortex (DLPFC and dorsal premotor), in the right middle temporal and occipital cortices and in the posterior cerebellum.
Conversely, increases were found in the basal ganglia and hippocampus. Interestingly, activity elicited by the InØ task also evidenced within-subjects PRE/POST differences (although kinematics InØ performance was equivalent in both sessions). In particular, the learning-related decreases found for the 90Ø pattern in the cerebellum, the occipital and temporal gyri were similarly observed for the intrinsic InØ pattern.
Moreover, InØ performance induced PRE/POST increases of activity in the left superior frontal gyrus. These fMRI results suggest that intensive practice of a new complex coordination pattern impacted, at least temporarily, on the neural correlates of preferred intrinsic coordination patterns. Additional neural recruitment might reflect increased mental effort to prevent negative transfer from the learned mode onto the intrinsic coordination mode.
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