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Open Access Research article

Learning course adjustments during arm movements with reversed sensitivity derivatives

Mohamed N Abdelghani1 and Douglas B Tweed123*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Physiology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

2 Department of Medicine, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

3 Centre for Vision Research, York University, Toronto, Canada

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BMC Neuroscience 2010, 11:150  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-11-150

Published: 26 November 2010

Abstract

Background

To learn, a motor system needs to know its sensitivity derivatives, which quantify how its neural commands affect motor error. But are these derivatives themselves learned, or are they known solely innately? Here we test a recent theory that the brain's estimates of sensitivity derivatives are revisable based on sensory feedback. In its simplest form, the theory says that each control system has a single, adjustable estimate of its sensitivity derivatives which affects all aspects of its task, e.g. if you learn to reach to mirror-reversed targets then your revised estimate should reverse not only your initial aiming but also your online course adjustments when the target jumps in mid-movement.

Methods

Human subjects bent a joystick to move a cursor to a target on a computer screen, but the cursor's motion was reversed relative to the joystick's. The target jumped once during each movement. Subjects had up to 4000 trials to practice aiming and responding to target jumps.

Results

All subjects learned to reverse both initial aiming and course adjustments.

Conclusions

Our study confirms that sensitivity derivatives can be relearned. It is consistent with the idea of a single, all-purpose estimate of those derivatives; and it suggests that the estimate is a function of context, as one would expect given that the true sensitivity derivatives may vary with the state of the controlled system, the target, and the motor commands.