Somatosensory changes associated with motor skill learning

J Neurophysiol. 2020 Mar 1;123(3):1052-1062. doi: 10.1152/jn.00497.2019. Epub 2020 Jan 29.


Trial-and-error motor adaptation has been linked to somatosensory plasticity and shifts in proprioception (limb position sense). The role of sensory processing in motor skill learning is less understood. Unlike adaptation, skill learning involves the acquisition of new movement patterns in the absence of perturbation, with performance limited by the speed-accuracy trade-off. We investigated somatosensory changes during motor skill learning at the behavioral and neurophysiological levels. Twenty-eight healthy young adults practiced a maze-tracing task, guiding a robotic manipulandum through an irregular two-dimensional track featuring several abrupt turns. Practice occurred on days 1 and 2. Skill was assessed before practice on day 1 and again on day 3, with learning indicated by a shift in the speed-accuracy function between these assessments. Proprioceptive function was quantified with a passive two-alternative forced-choice task. In a subset of 15 participants, we measured short-latency afferent inhibition (SAI) to index somatosensory projections to motor cortex. We found that motor practice enhanced the speed-accuracy skill function (F4,108 = 32.15, P < 0.001) and was associated with improved proprioceptive sensitivity at retention (t22 = 24.75, P = 0.0031). Furthermore, SAI increased after training (F1,14 = 5.41, P = 0.036). Interestingly, individuals with larger increases in SAI, reflecting enhanced somatosensory afference to motor cortex, demonstrated larger improvements in motor skill learning. These findings suggest that SAI may be an important functional mechanism for some aspect of motor skill learning. Further research is needed to test what parameters (task complexity, practice time, etc.) are specifically linked to somatosensory function.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Somatosensory processing has been implicated in motor adaptation, where performance recovers from a perturbation such as a force field. We investigated somatosensory function during motor skill learning, where a new motor pattern is acquired in the absence of perturbation. After skill practice, we found changes in proprioception and short-latency afferent inhibition (SAI), signifying somatosensory change at both the behavioral and neurophysiological levels. SAI may be an important functional mechanism by which individuals learn motor skills.

Keywords: motor skill learning; plasticity; proprioception; somatosensory function; transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.