Queen’s Psychology’s Dr. Jason Gallivan, Dr. Jonathan Smallwood, and Dr. Randy Flanagan recently published research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work shows how non-motor brain areas play a critical role in shaping motor learning.
The ability to learn new motor skills is critical for a vast majority of our daily behaviours, yet scientists have a poor understanding of how such learning is achieved by the human brain. The traditional view has been that the acquisition of new motor skills involves selective changes in the neural activity of motor-related brain areas.
In the article, the researchers found that motor learning is governed by the activity higher-order cognitive brain areas and how they work in concert with the motor system.
“We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to peek inside the brain and study neural activity while human participants learned a new motor task,” Dr. Gallivan explains. “We found that the activity of areas of the default mode network, a brain network implicated in higher-order thought and memory, was not only involved in motor learning, but that the activity of these areas was linked to individual differences in subject performance.”
 The provocative implication of this work is that many motor-related deficits, which can arise through injury or neurological disease, may actually reflect the dysfunction of cognitive brain systems rather than the motor system.
 “Gaining a better understanding of the neural bases of learning is not only essential for characterizing the nature of these impairments but also for devising more effective therapies for rehabilitation,” Dr. Gallivan concludes. “Patients recovering from stroke, for example, are often faced with the daunting task of having to re-learn many of the everyday motor skills that once seemed effortless and automatic. Thus, understanding the brain networks involved in learning, and how these circuits can be exploited to enhance recovery, is absolutely critical.”
This work was funded through the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

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