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J Neurosci. 2009 May 6;29(18):5784-92. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4326-08.2009.

Acquisition of a simple motor skill: task-dependent adaptation plus long-term change in the human soleus H-reflex.

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  • 1Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health, Albany, New York 12201-0509, USA.


Activity-dependent plasticity occurs throughout the CNS. However, investigations of skill acquisition usually focus on cortex. To expand the focus, we analyzed in humans the development of operantly conditioned H-reflex change, a simple motor skill that develops gradually and involves plasticity in both the brain and the spinal cord. Each person completed 6 baseline and 24 conditioning sessions over 10 weeks. In each conditioning session, the soleus H-reflex was measured while the subject was or was not asked to increase (HRup subjects) or decrease (HRdown subjects) it. When the subject was asked to change H-reflex size, immediate visual feedback indicated whether a size criterion had been satisfied. Over the 24 conditioning sessions, H-reflex size gradually increased in six of eight HRup subjects and decreased in eight of nine HRdown subjects, resulting in final sizes of 140 +/- 12 and 69 +/- 6% of baseline size, respectively. The final H-reflex change was the sum of within-session (i.e., task-dependent) adaptation and across-session (i.e., long-term) change. Task-dependent adaptation appeared within four to six sessions and persisted thereafter, averaging +13% in HRup subjects and -15% in HRdown subjects. In contrast, long-term change began after 10 sessions and increased gradually thereafter, reaching +27% in HRup subjects and -16% in HRdown subjects. Thus, the acquisition of H-reflex conditioning consists of two phenomena, task-dependent adaptation and long-term change, that together constitute the new motor skill. In combination with previous data, this new finding further elucidates the interaction of plasticity in brain and spinal cord that underlies the acquisition and maintenance of motor skills.

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