Source of physical performance found in brain

New research distinguishes between learning physical skills and brain activity associated with performing those skills

A new study from the Department of Veterans Affairs suggests that the brain’s coordination center is not active while we learn new motor skills – but it is active while we use them. The findings appear in the June 14 issue of Science.
Investigators concentrated on the cerebellum — a part of the brain closely linked to movement (motor skills) and coordination. Located at the base of the brain, its function is somewhat mysterious.

The distinction between learning activity in the brain and performance activity represents an important step toward understanding more precisely how the brain processes information and how it affects the body.

The cerebellum’s role in learning motor skills has been controversial, mostly because as we learn a skill we also change our performance. So, is the cerebellum related to the skill itself or does it merely instruct the muscles and joints to improve performance?

Dr. James Ashe of the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and colleagues from the University of Minnesota and University of Virginia found that they could train subjects to learn a finger-movement task but prevent them from changing their performance by asking them to perform another (distractor) task at the same time.

When the distractor task was withdrawn, the subjects changed performance showing they had learned the movements.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) investigators detected brain activity in the cerebellum during the performance of learned motor skills, but not during the learning phase itself.

These findings suggest that the cerebellum does not contribute to learning a sequence of motor skills per se, but rather to how well the skills are performed.

Dr. Ashe believes the findings hold potential significance for patients.

“This helps us understand some of the movement problems experienced by patients after stroke or other diseases of the cerebellum. It is possible that such understanding might be used in the future to develop better rehabilitation and training procedures to aid the recovery of function in patients with cerebellar disease.”

According to Ashe, researchers may delve deeper into the effect practice has on performance.

“Our primary interest is in how changes in brain activity enable us to learn motor skills through practice. Work such as ours may help us understand which brain areas are most important for learning and why some individuals learn motor skills more easily than others.”

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

VA research provides improved medical care for veterans, as well as the general population. Through its unique affiliation with medical schools, VA plays a crucial role in educating future physicians in research and clinically oriented areas.

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