Use-dependent plasticity explains aftereffects in visually guided locomotor learning of a novel step length asymmetry

J Neurophysiol. 2020 Jul 1;124(1):32-39. doi: 10.1152/jn.00083.2020. Epub 2020 May 20.


Studies of upper extremity reaching show that use-dependent plasticity, or learning from repetition, plays an important role in shaping motor behaviors. Yet the impact of repetition on locomotor learning is unclear, despite the fact that gait is developed and practiced over millions of repetitions. To test whether repetition alone can induce storage of a novel walking pattern, we instructed two groups of young healthy subjects to learn an asymmetric walking pattern through two distinct learning paradigms. The first group learned a new pattern through an established visual distortion paradigm, which provided both sensory prediction error and repetition of movement patterns to induce walking aftereffects, and the second received veridical feedback with a target change, which provided only repetition (use-dependent plasticity) to induce aftereffects. When feedback was removed, both groups demonstrated aftereffects in the primary outcome, step asymmetry index. Surprisingly, despite the different task demands, both groups produced similar aftereffect magnitudes, which also had similar rates of decay, suggesting that the addition of sensory prediction errors did not improve storage of learning beyond that induced by the use-dependent process alone. To further characterize the use-dependent process, we conducted a second experiment to quantify aftereffect size in a third group who practiced double the asymmetry magnitude. This new group showed a proportionately greater magnitude of the use-dependent aftereffect. Together, these findings show that the primary driver of storage of a new step length asymmetry during visually guided locomotor learning is repetition, not sensory prediction error, and this effect scales with the learning magnitude.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Use-dependent plasticity, or learning from repetition, is an important process for upper extremity reaching tasks, but its contribution to walking is not well established. Here, we demonstrate the existence of a dose-dependent, use-dependent process during visually guided treadmill walking. We also show that sensory prediction errors, previously thought to drive aftereffects in similar locomotor learning paradigms, do not appear to play a significant role in visually driven learning of a novel step asymmetry during treadmill walking.

Keywords: activity-dependent plasticity; locomotion; motor adaptation; motor learning; repetition; use-dependent learning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Humans
  • Practice, Psychological*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Walking / physiology*
  • Young Adult