Neuroimaging studies of practice-related change: fMRI and meta-analytic evidence of a domain-general control network for learning

Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2005 Dec;25(3):607-23. doi: 10.1016/j.cogbrainres.2005.08.013. Epub 2005 Oct 20.


Functional magnetic resonance imaging and a meta-analysis of prior neuroimaging studies were used to characterize cortical changes resulting from extensive practice and to evaluate a dual-processing account of the neural mechanisms underlying human learning. Three core predictions of the dual processing theory are evaluated: 1) that practice elicits generalized reductions in regional activity by reducing the load on the cognitive control mechanisms that scaffold early learning; 2) that these control mechanisms are domain-general; and 3) that no separate processing pathway emerges as skill develops. To evaluate these predictions, a meta-analysis of prior neuroimaging studies and a within-subjects fMRI experiment contrasting unpracticed to practiced performance in a paired-associate task were conducted. The principal effect of practice was found to be a reduction in the extent and magnitude of activity in a cortical network spanning bilateral dorsal prefrontal, left ventral prefrontal, medial frontal (anterior cingulate), left insular, bilateral parietal, and occipito-temporal (fusiform) areas. These activity reductions are shown to occur in common regions across prior neuroimaging studies and for both verbal and nonverbal paired-associate learning in the present fMRI experiment. The implicated network of brain regions is interpreted as a domain-general system engaged specifically to support novice, but not practiced, performance.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Cues
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / anatomy & histology
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Practice, Psychological*