Motor learning and its transfer during bilateral arm reaching.

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Harley, Linda Rosemary
Prilutsky, Boris I.
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Have you ever attempted to rub your abdomen with one hand while tapping your head with the other? Separately these movements are easy to perform but doing them together (bilateral task) requires motor adaptation. Motor adaptation is the process through which the Central Nervous System improves upon performance. Transfer of learning is the process through which learning a motor task in one condition improves performance in another condition. The purpose of this study was to determine whether transfer of learning occurs during bilateral goal-directed reaching tasks. It was hypothesized that transfer of learning would occur from the non-dominant to the dominant arm during bilateral tasks and that position and load feedback from the arms would affect the rate of adaptation and transfer of learning. During the experiments, subjects reached with one or both their index finger(s) to eight targets while a velocity dependent force perturbation (force environment) was applied to the arm(s). Three groups of bilateral tasks were examined: (1) unilateral reaching, where one arm learned to reach in a force environment, while the other arm remained stationary and therefore did not provide movement related position or load feedback; (2) bilateral reaching single load, where both arms performed reaching movements but only one arm learned a force environment and therefore the other arm provided movement related position feedback but not load feedback; (3) bilateral reaching two loads, where both arms performed reaching movements and both learned a force environment, while providing movement related position and load feedback. The rate of adaptation of the force environment was quantified as the speed at which the perturbed index finger trajectory became straight over the course of repeated task performance. The rate of adaptation was significantly slower for the dominant arm during the unilateral reaching tasks than during the bilateral reaching single load tasks (p<0.05). This indicates that the movement related position feedback from the non-dominant arm improved significantly the motor adaptation of the dominant arm; therefore transfer of learning occurred from the non-dominant to the dominant arm. The rate of adaptation for the non-dominant arm did not differ significantly (p>0.05) between the unilateral reaching and bilateral reaching single load tasks. Results also indicated that the rate of adaptation was significantly (p<0.05) faster for both the non-dominant and the dominant arms during the bilateral reaching two loads tasks than during the bilateral reaching single load tasks. The latter results indicate that transfer of learning occurred in both directions - from the dominant to the non-dominant arm and from the non-dominant to the dominant arm - when position and load feedback was available from both arms, but only when the force environment acted in the same joint direction. This study demonstrated that transfer of learning does occur during bilateral reaching tasks and that the direction and degree of transfer of learning may be modulated by the position and load feedback that is available to the central nervous system. This information may be used by physical therapists in order to improve rehabilitation strategies for the upper extremity.
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