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J Neurophysiol. 2013 Jul;110(2):322-33. doi: 10.1152/jn.00745.2012. Epub 2013 Apr 17.

Cerebellar motor learning: are environment dynamics more important than error size?

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Department of Mechanical Engineering, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA.


Cerebellar damage impairs the control of complex dynamics during reaching movements. It also impairs learning of predictable dynamic perturbations through an error-based process. Prior work suggests that there are distinct neural mechanisms involved in error-based learning that depend on the size of error experienced. This is based, in part, on the observation that people with cerebellar degeneration may have an intact ability to learn from small errors. Here we studied the relative effect of specific dynamic perturbations and error size on motor learning of a reaching movement in patients with cerebellar damage. We also studied generalization of learning within different coordinate systems (hand vs. joint space). Contrary to our expectation, we found that error size did not alter cerebellar patients' ability to learn the force field. Instead, the direction of the force field affected patients' ability to learn, regardless of whether the force perturbations were introduced gradually (small error) or abruptly (large error). Patients performed best in fields that helped them compensate for movement dynamics associated with reaching. However, they showed much more limited generalization patterns than control subjects, indicating that patients rely on a different learning mechanism. We suggest that patients typically use a compensatory strategy to counteract movement dynamics. They may learn to relax this compensatory strategy when the external perturbation is favorable to counteracting their movement dynamics, and improve reaching performance. Altogether, these findings show that dynamics affect learning in cerebellar patients more than error size.


cerebellar ataxia; dynamics; error size; motor learning

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