Motor learning often involves situations in which the somatosensory targets of movement are, at least initially, poorly defined, as for example, in learning to speak or learning the feel of a proper tennis serve. Under these conditions, motor skill acquisition presumably requires perceptual as well as motor learning. That is, it engages both the progressive shaping of sensory targets and associated changes in motor performance. In the present study, we test the idea that perceptual learning alters somatosensory function and in so doing produces changes to human motor performance and sensorimotor adaptation. Subjects in these experiments undergo perceptual training in which a robotic device passively moves the subject's arm on one of a set of fan-shaped trajectories. Subjects are required to indicate whether the robot moved the limb to the right or the left and feedback is provided. Over the course of training both the perceptual boundary and acuity are altered. The perceptual learning is observed to improve both the rate and extent of learning in a subsequent sensorimotor adaptation task and the benefits persist for at least 24 h. The improvement in the present studies varies systematically with changes in perceptual acuity and is obtained regardless of whether the perceptual boundary shift serves to systematically increase or decrease error on subsequent movements. The beneficial effects of perceptual training are found to be substantially dependent on reinforced decision-making in the sensory domain. Passive-movement training on its own is less able to alter subsequent learning in the motor system. Overall, this study suggests perceptual learning plays an integral role in motor learning.
Keywords: motor learning; perceptual learning; reaching movement; sensorimotor adaptation.