Much has been revealed concerning human motor learning at the behavioral level [1, 2], but less is known about changes in the involved neural circuits and signals. By examining muscle spindle responses during a classic visuomotor adaptation task [3-6] performed by fully alert humans, I found substantial modulation of sensory afferent signals as a function of adaptation state. Specifically, spindle control was independent of concurrent muscle activity but was specific to movement direction (representing muscle lengthening versus shortening) and to different stages of learning. Increased spindle afferent responses to muscle stretch occurring early during learning reflected individual error size and were negatively related to subsequent antagonist activity (i.e., 60-80 ms thereafter). Relative increases in tonic afferent output early during learning were predictive of the subjects' adaptation rate. I also found that independent spindle control during sensory realignment (the "washout" stage) induced afferent signal "linearization" with respect to muscle length (i.e., signals were more tuned to hand position). The results demonstrate for the first time that motor learning also involves independent and state-related modulation of sensory mechanoreceptor signals. The current findings suggest that adaptive motor performance also relies on the independent control of sensors, not just of muscles. I propose that the "γ" motor system innervating spindles acts to facilitate the acquisition and extraction of task-relevant information at the early stages of sensorimotor adaptation. This designates a more active and targeted role for the human proprioceptive system during motor learning.
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