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J Neurosci. 2011 Oct 19;31(42):14944-51. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1046-11.2011.

Time-limited consolidation and task interference: no direct link.

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Department of Cognitive Neuroscience, Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience, Maastricht University, 6200 MD Maastricht, the Netherlands.


Perceptual skills improve with daily practice (Fahle and Poggio, 2002; Fine and Jacobs, 2002). Practice induces plasticity in task-relevant brain regions during an "offline" consolidation period thought to last several hours, during which initially fragile memory traces become stable (Karni, 1996; Dudai, 2004). Impaired retention of a task if followed by training in another task is considered evidence for the instability of memory traces during consolidation (Dudai, 2004). However, it remains unknown when after training memory traces become stable and resistant against interference, where in the brain the neuronal mechanisms responsible for interference are localized, and how these mechanisms produce interference. Here, we show in human participants strong interference between two visual skill-learning tasks for surprisingly long time intervals between training periods (up to 24 h). Interference occurred during asymptotic learning, but only when stimuli were similar between tasks. This supports a strong contribution to interference of low-level visual cortical areas (Karni and Bertini, 1997; Ahissar and Hochstein, 2004), where similar stimuli recruit overlapping neuronal populations. Our finding of stimulus-dependent and time-independent interference reveals a fundamental limit in cortical plasticity that constrains the simultaneous representation of multiple skills in a single neuronal population, rather than a time-limited consolidation process.

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