Background: Motor skill learning usually comprises "fast" improvement in performance within the initial training session and "slow" improvement that develops across sessions. Previous studies have revealed changes in activity and connectivity in motor cortex and striatum during motor skill learning. However, the nature and dynamics of the plastic changes in each of these brain structures during the different phases of motor learning remain unclear.
Results: By using multielectrode arrays, we recorded the simultaneous activity of neuronal ensembles in motor cortex and dorsal striatum of mice during the different phases of skill learning on an accelerating rotarod. Mice exhibited fast improvement in the task during the initial session and also slow improvement across days. Throughout training, a high percentage of striatal (57%) and motor cortex (55%) neurons were task related; i.e., changed their firing rate while mice were running on the rotarod. Improvement in performance was accompanied by substantial plastic changes in both striatum and motor cortex. We observed parallel recruitment of task-related neurons in both structures specifically during the first session. Conversely, during slow learning across sessions we observed differential refinement of the firing patterns in each structure. At the neuronal ensemble level, we observed considerable changes in activity within the first session that became less evident during subsequent sessions.
Conclusions: These data indicate that cortical and striatal circuits exhibit remarkable but dissociable plasticity during fast and slow motor skill learning and suggest that distinct neural processes mediate the different phases of motor skill learning.