Regional Brain Activation Associated with Different Performance Patterns during Learning of a Complex Motor Skill

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In understanding the brain’s response to extensive practice and development of high-level, expert skill, a key question is whether the same brain structures remain involved throughout the different stages of learning and a form of adaptation occurs, or a new functional circuit is formed with some structures dropping off and others joining. After training subjects on a set of complex motor tasks (tying knots), we utilized fMRI to observe that in subjects who learned the task well new regional activity emerged in posterior medial structures, i.e. the posterior cingulate gyrus. Activation associated with weak learning of the knots involved areas that mediate visual spatial computations. Brain activity associated with no substantive learning indicated involvement of areas dedicated to the declarative aspects learning such as the anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortex. The new activation for the pattern of strong learning has alternate interpretations involving either retrieval during episodic memory or a shift toward non-executive cognitive control of the task. While these interpretations are not resolved, the study makes clear that single time-point images of motor skill can be misleading because the brain structures that implement action can change following practice.

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