Somatosensory cortical excitability changes precede those in motor cortex during human motor learning
Journal of Neurophysiology
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Copyright © 2019 the American Physiological Society Motor learning is associated with plasticity in both motor and somatosensory cortex. It is known from animal studies that tetanic stimulation to each of these areas individually induces long-term potentiation in its counterpart. In this context it is possible that changes in motor cortex contribute to somatosensory change and that changes in somatosensory cortex are involved in changes in motor areas of the brain. It is also possible that learning-related plasticity occurs in these areas independently. To better understand the relative contribution to human motor learning of motor cortical and somatosensory plasticity, we assessed the time course of changes in primary somatosensory and motor cortex excitability during motor skill learning. Learning was assessed using a force production task in which a target force profile varied from one trial to the next. The excitability of primary somatosensory cortex was measured using somatosensory evoked potentials in response to median nerve stimulation. The excitability of primary motor cortex was measured using motor evoked potentials elicited by single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation. These two measures were interleaved with blocks of motor learning trials. We found that the earliest changes in cortical excitability during learning occurred in somatosensory cortical responses, and these changes preceded changes in motor cortical excitability. Changes in somatosensory evoked potentials were correlated with behavioral measures of learning. Changes in motor evoked potentials were not. These findings indicate that plasticity in somatosensory cortex occurs as a part of the earliest stages of motor learning, before changes in motor cortex are observed.