Human functional neuroimaging of brain changes associated with practice

Cereb Cortex. 2005 Aug;15(8):1089-102. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhi005. Epub 2004 Dec 22.


The discovery that experience-driven changes in the human brain can occur from a neural to a cortical level throughout the lifespan has stimulated a proliferation of research into how neural function changes in response to experience, enabled by neuroimaging methods such as positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging. Studies attempt to characterize these changes by examining how practice on a task affects the functional anatomy underlying performance. Results are incongruous, including patterns of increases, decreases and functional reorganization of regional activations. Following an extensive review of the practice-effects literature, we distinguish a number of factors affecting the pattern of practice effects observed, including the effects of task domain, changes at the level of behavioural and cognitive processes, the time-window of imaging and practice, and of a number of other influences and miscellaneous confounding factors. We make a novel distinction between patterns of reorganization and redistribution as effects of task practice on brain activation, and emphasize the need for careful attention to practice-related changes occurring on the behavioural, cognitive and neural levels of analysis. Finally, we suggest that functional and effective connectivity analyses may make important contributions to our understanding of changes in functional anatomy occurring as a result of practice on tasks.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Diagnostic Imaging / methods*
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Practice, Psychological*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology