Somatosensory working memory in human reinforcement-based motor learning

J Neurophysiol. 2018 Dec 1;120(6):3275-3286. doi: 10.1152/jn.00442.2018. Epub 2018 Oct 24.


Recent studies using visuomotor adaptation and sequence learning tasks have assessed the involvement of working memory in the visuospatial domain. The capacity to maintain previously performed movements in working memory is perhaps even more important in reinforcement-based learning to repeat accurate movements and avoid mistakes. Using this kind of task in the present work, we tested the relationship between somatosensory working memory and motor learning. The first experiment involved separate memory and motor learning tasks. In the memory task, the participant's arm was displaced in different directions by a robotic arm, and the participant was asked to judge whether a subsequent test direction was one of the previously presented directions. In the motor learning task, participants made reaching movements to a hidden visual target and were provided with positive feedback as reinforcement when the movement ended in the target zone. It was found that participants that had better somatosensory working memory showed greater motor learning. In a second experiment, we designed a new task in which learning and working memory trials were interleaved, allowing us to study participants' memory for movements they performed as part of learning. As in the first experiment, we found that participants with better somatosensory working memory also learned more. Moreover, memory performance for successful movements was better than for movements that failed to reach the target. These results suggest that somatosensory working memory is involved in reinforcement motor learning and that this memory preferentially keeps track of reinforced movements. NEW & NOTEWORTHY The present work examined somatosensory working memory in reinforcement-based motor learning. Working memory performance was reliably correlated with the extent of learning. With the use of a paradigm in which learning and memory trials were interleaved, memory was assessed for movements performed during learning. Movements that received positive feedback were better remembered than movements that did not. Thus working memory does not track all movements equally but is biased to retain movements that were rewarded.

Keywords: exploration; reinforcement learning; sensory working memory; somatic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term*
  • Motor Activity*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology*
  • Young Adult