Somatosensory versus cerebellar contributions to proprioceptive changes associated with motor skill learning: A theta burst stimulation study

Cortex. 2021 Jul;140:98-109. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2021.03.019. Epub 2021 Apr 15.


Background: It is well established that proprioception (position sense) is important for motor control, yet its role in motor learning and associated plasticity is not well understood. We previously demonstrated that motor skill learning is associated with enhanced proprioception and changes in sensorimotor neurophysiology. However, the neural substrates mediating these effects are unclear.

Objective: To determine whether suppressing activity in the cerebellum and somatosensory cortex (S1) affects proprioceptive changes associated with motor skill learning.

Methods: 54 healthy young adults practiced a skill involving visually-guided 2D reaching movements through an irregular-shaped track using a robotic manipulandum with their right hand. Proprioception was measured using a passive two-alternative choice task before and after motor practice. Continuous theta burst stimulation (cTBS) was delivered over S1 or the cerebellum (CB) at the end of training for two consecutive days. We compared group differences (S1, CB, Sham) in proprioception and motor skill, quantified by a speed-accuracy function, measured on a third consecutive day (retention).

Results: As shown previously, the Sham group demonstrated enhanced proprioceptive sensitivity after training and at retention. The S1 group had impaired proprioceptive function at retention through online changes during practice, whereas the CB group demonstrated offline decrements in proprioceptive function. All groups demonstrated motor skill learning. However, the magnitude of learning differed between the CB and Sham groups, consistent with a role for the cerebellum in motor learning.

Conclusion: Overall, these findings suggest that the cerebellum and S1 are important for distinct aspects of proprioceptive changes during skill learning.

Keywords: Cerebellum; Proprioception; Skill learning; Somatosensory cortex; Theta burst stimulation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cerebellum
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Motor Skills*
  • Proprioception
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation*
  • Young Adult