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Exp Brain Res. 2004 Jan;154(2):211-7. Epub 2003 Sep 24.

The role of motor imagery in learning a totally novel movement.

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Institute of Human Movement Sciences, University of Groningen, PO Box 196, 9700 AD, Groningen, The Netherlands.


The aim of the present study is to gain more insight into the mechanisms underlying mental practice. The question of whether a totally novel movement may be learned by mental practice was investigated. Healthy young adults had to learn the abduction of the big toe (dominant right foot) without moving the other toes or the foot. The subjects were divided into two groups: subjects who were absolutely unable to abduct their big toe ("absolute zero" group) and subjects who were able to abduct their toe to some extent but showed clear room for improvement ("already doing it" group). Two separate experiments were executed. In the first experiment, 37 absolute-zero subjects had to practice, mentally or physically, the target movement. In the second experiment 40 already-doing-it subjects had to improve their toe-abduction skill. The results showed that absolute-zero subjects could not acquire the toe-abduction movement by means of mental practice. Only subjects who physically practiced the target movement improved significantly. Subjects who had some experience in the task (already-doing-it subjects) improved significantly after mental practice as well as after physical practice. The results seem to indicate that it is more plausible to explain the learning effects of mental practice in terms of a "top-down" mechanism based on the activation of a central representation of the movement than in terms of a peripheral "bottom-up" mechanism based on the activation of muscles.

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