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The Flexible Brain 

Banting Post-Doctoral Fellow Tyler Cluff studies how we learn to control and adapt movement

March 09, 2015

Tyler Cluff

Banting Post-Doctoral Fellow Dr. Tyler Cluff uses KINARM to facilitate research tests

We regularly move through 'motor memories' - the many types of movements that we have learned so well, we do them without even thinking. But how do we learn these movements in the first place? And what happens in the brain when we learn new motor skills? These are the questions Dr. Tyler Cluff poses in his research. Dr. Cluff, a post-doctoral fellow in the Centre for Neuroscience Studies, analyzes how the brain learns to control movement. For his research, he uses a unique interdisciplinary approach that pairs neurophysiological and behavioural techniques with formal control theory to study human motor learning.

Dr. Cluff's background is in Movement Science, having completed a BSc and MSc in Kinesiology at the University of Ottawa. Before joining Queen's, Tyler completed his PhD in Neuroscience at McMaster University, where he studied how we learn to control objects with unstable dynamics.

Tyler brings this expertise to Queen’s, shifting focus to investigate how feedback responses (traditionally called reflexes) are modified when we learn new motor skills. “Motor learning studies typically focus on the development of ‘motor memories’, which describe how we learn to modify our muscle activity to initiate voluntary actions”, Dr. Cluff explains. “However, this approach cannot explain how we learn to correct movements, for example, to keep our balance when skating on a bumpy ice surface. In these scenarios, the motor system has to rely on sensory feedback from receptors in our eyes, skin and muscles to correct the ongoing action”.

It has been difficult to determine how feedback responses play into the learning process with traditional motor learning tasks. “We have developed tasks that enable us to assess the role of sensory feedback in motor learning. Our work is guided by optimal feedback control, an advanced control theory that makes detailed predictions about how sensory feedback can be used to control ongoing actions. We are working on a number of projects that put these predictions to the test”, explains Dr. Cluff.

During these tests, subjects perform a reaching task with their right arm supported in a robotic device. This device, called KINARM (Kinesiological Instrument for Normal and Altered Reaching Movements), allows Drs. Cluff and Scott to introduce physical loads that alter upper limb motion. These novel loads require that participants learn to modify their motor patterns to make accurate movements. Throughout this learning task, they disturb the arm with small mechanical perturbations to measure how the brain processes sensory feedback from the moving limb. “Strikingly, we found that feedback responses are sensitive to the strength of novel loads applied at the elbow, and correlated with reaching errors during learning. This result shows that motor learning modifies how we process sensory feedback from the limb to guide movement”, Dr. Cluff explains.

The next step will be to determine what brain areas contribute to flexible feedback processing during motor learning. Drs. Cluff and Scott plan to use transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to determine whether temporarily disrupting the function of targeted brain areas produces deficits that interfere with motor learning. By identifying brain areas involved in motor learning, Dr. Cluff’s research will contribute to a better definition of healthy motor function. In the long term, this work may help in developing tests that look for behavioural markers of neurological impairments such as stroke or brain injury.

For his cutting edge research, Dr. Cluff was rewarded with the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship, Canada’s most prestigious post-doctoral fellowship program, which awards funding to top-tier research talent. The work was funded by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Dr. Cluff’s and Dr. Scott’s findings were recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience, as well as in a book chapter in The Cognitive Neurosciences, which provides detailed background on the framework used to interpret how the brain plans and controls voluntary actions.