Reward and punishment enhance motor adaptation in stroke

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Background and objective

The effects of motor learning, such as motor adaptation, in stroke rehabilitation are often transient, thus mandating approaches that enhance the amount of learning and retention. Previously, we showed in young individuals that reward and punishment feedback have dissociable effects on motor adaptation, with punishment improving adaptation and reward enhancing retention. If these findings were able to generalise to patients with stroke, they would provide a way to optimise motor learning in these patients. Therefore, we tested this in 45 patients with chronic stroke allocated in three groups.


Patients performed reaching movements with their paretic arm with a robotic manipulandum. After training (day 1), day 2 involved adaptation to a novel force field. During the adaptation phase, patients received performance-based feedback according to the group they were allocated: reward, punishment or no feedback (neutral). On day 3, patients readapted to the force field but all groups now received neutral feedback.


All patients adapted, with reward and punishment groups displaying greater adaptation and readaptation than the neutral group, irrespective of demographic, cognitive or functional differences. Remarkably, the reward and punishment groups adapted to similar degree as healthy controls. Finally, the reward group showed greater retention.


This study provides, for the first time, evidence that reward and punishment can enhance motor adaptation in patients with stroke. Further research on reinforcement-based motor learning regimes is warranted to translate these promising results into clinical practice and improve motor rehabilitation outcomes in patients with stroke.

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