An operant approach to rehabilitation medicine: overcoming learned nonuse by shaping

J Exp Anal Behav. 1994 Mar;61(2):281-93. doi: 10.1901/jeab.1994.61-281.


A new approach to the rehabilitation of movement, based primarily on the principles of operant conditioning, was derived from research with deafferented monkeys. The analysis suggests that a certain proportion of excess motor disability after certain types of injury involves a learned suppression of movement and may be termed learned nonuse. Learned nonuse can be overcome by changing the contingencies of reinforcement so that they strongly favor use of an affected upper extremity in the chronic postinjury situation. The techniques employed here involved 2 weeks of restricting movement of the opposite (unaffected) extremity and training of the affected limb. Initial work with humans has been with chronic stroke patients for whom the approach has yielded large improvements in motor ability and functional independence. We report here preliminary data suggesting that shaping with verbal feedback further enhances the motor recovery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arm
  • Cerebrovascular Disorders / complications*
  • Conditioning, Operant*
  • Haplorhini
  • Helplessness, Learned*
  • Humans
  • Movement Disorders / etiology
  • Movement Disorders / rehabilitation*