Motor Skill Learning

Execution of motor tasks such as tapping fingers in a particular sequence or maintaining contact between a target moving in a circular pattern and a hand-held marker activates large regions of cerebral cortex and subcortical structures, including sensory motor cortex (primarily the primary motor cortex), supplementary motor area (SMA), premotor area (PMA), putamen, cerebellum, and sensorimotor thalamus (see Fig. 2). Traditionally, and consistent with data on the anatomical layout of the motor system, neuroimaging studies have found activations in these areas on the side contralateral to hand movement (with ipsilateral activation of the cerebellum because of its crossed connections to the cortex). However, evidence indicates that complex movement of even one hand can activate motor areas bilaterally. For example, in one experiment, participants rotated two metal balls at a constant rate in either their right or left hand. These complex movements activated the regions mentioned previously, including significant bilateral activations in the postcentral gyrus, traditionally considered primary somatosensory cortex, and intraparietal sul-cus. Notably missing from this list of activations is the basal ganglia, which appear to be preferentially activated during the performance of learned sequences of movements.

Areas involved in the learning of motor skills are largely the same areas as those used during task performance. However, some regions become active only during initial learning or only after performance has become automatic and requires little effort. These changes are specific to the type of task—they vary depending on whether automatic performance involves increased or decreased use of sensory cues and whether the task involves learning a new movement, a sequence of movements, or a sensory-motor association.

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