Consolidation of human somatosensory memory during motor learning

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Sensorimotor learning is a bidirectional process associated with concurrent neuroplastic changes in the motor and somatosensory system. While motor memory consolidation and retention have been extensively studied during skill acquisition, little is known about the formation and consolidation of somatosensory memory associated with motor learning. Using a robotic exoskeleton, we tracked markers of somatosensory and motor learning while healthy participants trained to make goal-directed wrist reaching movements over five days and evaluated retention for up to 10 days after practice. Markers of somatosensory learning were changes in wrist position sense bias (systematic error) and precision (random error). The main results are as follows: First, somatosensory (proprioceptive) memory consolidation shows signs of cost savings with repeated sensorimotor training – the same feature is known for motor memory formation. Moreover, somatosensory learning generalized to untrained workspace. Second, somatosensory learning over days can be characterized as an early improvement in sensory precision and a later improvement in sensory bias. Third, the time course of learning gains in position sense acuity coincided with improvements in spatial movement accuracy. Finally, the gains of somatosensory learning were retained for several days. Improvements in position sense bias were still visible up to 3 days after the end of practice for the trained workspace positions, but decayed faster in the untrained workspace. Improvements in position sense precision were retained for up to 10 days and were workspace independent. The findings are consistent with the view that an internal model of somatosensory joint space is formed during motor learning.

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