Distinct neural systems underlie learning visuomotor and spatial representations of motor skills

Hum Brain Mapp. 2005 Mar;24(3):229-47. doi: 10.1002/hbm.20084.


Motor skill learning depends upon acquiring knowledge about multiple features of sequential behaviors, including their visuomotor and spatial properties. To investigate the neural systems that distinguish these representations, we carried out functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as healthy adults learned to type sequences on a novel keyboard. On the initial training day, learning-related changes in brain activation were found in distributed cortical regions, only a subset of which correlated with improvements in movement time (MT), suggesting their preeminence in controlling movements online. Subjects received extended training on the sequences during the ensuing week, after which they returned to the scanner for another imaging session. Relative to performance at the end of the first training day, continued plasticity was most striking in the inferior parietal cortex and new areas of plasticity were uncovered in the caudate and cerebellum. Plasticity in these regions correlated with reaction time (RT), suggesting their role in planning sequences before movement onset. Two transfer conditions probed for "what" subjects learned. The probe for visuomotor learning produced increased activation in visual analysis (left inferior visual cortex) and advance planning (left caudate) systems. The probe for spatial learning produced increased activation in visuomotor-transformation (left dorsal visual pathway) and retrieval (left precuneus) systems. Increased activity in all of these regions correlated with increased RT, but not MT, indicating that both transfer conditions interfered with the neural representation of plans for the sequences, but not processes that controlled their implementation. These findings demonstrated that neuroanatomically dissociable systems support the acquisition of visuomotor and spatial representations of actions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Movement / physiology
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology