Cortical Plasticity During Three-Week Motor Skill Learning

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The authors studied motor behavior and primary motor (M1) and somatosensory (S1) cortical representations of movement during hand motor skill acquisition over 3 weeks. During four functional MRI sessions 1 week apart, subjects performed simple movements of single fingers and wrist, and a sequential movement of the middle three fingers, contrasted with rest. Half of the subjects practiced the sequential movement, whereas the other half practiced a gross motor task (squeezing a sponge). In both groups, motor performance gradually improved both on the practiced sequence and also on unrelated tests of general hand performance. Similarly, gradual expansion of active M1 and S1 areas was observed with the practiced sequence and with the unpracticed single-finger and wrist movements. Motor practice enhanced overlaps and sharing of cortex (significantly more so in the fine-skill group), preserving somatotopy and the overall extent of the hand representations. Even a limited amount of practice on a complex task can thus lead to both specific and nonspecific improvements in behavior and to expansion of M1 and S1 movement representations. Finally, the extent of active M1 and S1 was significantly correlated with out-of-scanner performance on sequential finger movement and may reflect the current motor ability of the individual.

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