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Electrophysiological correlates of motor sequence learning

Christelle Beaulieu1, Marie-Ève Bourassa1, Benoit Brisson1, Pierre Jolicoeur2 and Louis De Beaumont13*

Author Affiliations

1 Université du Québec à Trois Rivières, C.P. 5000, Trois Rivières, Québec G9A 5H7, Canada

2 Université de Montréal, C.P. 6205, Succursale Centre-ville, Montréal, Québec H3C 3T5, Canada

3 Montreal Sacred Heart Hospital Research Centre, 5400, Boulevard Gouin Ouest, Montréal, Québec H4J1C5, Canada

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BMC Neuroscience 2014, 15:102  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-15-102

Published: 28 August 2014



The Error-related negativity (ERN) is a component of the event-related brain potentials elicited by error commission. The ERN is thought to reflect cognitive control processes aiming to improve performance. As previous studies showed a modulation of the ERN amplitude throughout the execution of a learning task, this study aims to follow the ERN amplitude changes from early to late learning blocks in relation with concomitant motor sequence learning using a serial reaction time (SRT) task. Twenty-two healthy participants completed a SRT task during which continuous EEG activity was recorded. The SRT task consists of series of stimulus-response pairs and involves motor learning of a repeating sequence. Learning was computed as the difference in mean response time between the last sequence block and the last random blocks that immediately follows it (sequence-specific learning). Event-related potentials were analysed to measure ERN amplitude elicited by error commission.


Mean ERN amplitude difference between the first four learning blocks and the last four learning blocks of the SRT task correlated significantly with motor sequence learning as well as with overall response time improvement, such that those participants whose ERN amplitude most increased through learning blocks were also those who exhibited most SRT task improvements. In contrast, neither sequence-specific learning nor overall response time improvement across learning blocks were found to be related to averaged ERN amplitude from all learning blocks.


Findings from the present study suggest that the ERN amplitude changes from early to late learning blocks occurring over the course of the SRT task, as opposed to the averaged ERN amplitude from all learning blocks, is more closely associated with learning of a motor sequence. These findings propose an improved electrophysiological marker to index change in cognitive control efficiency during motor sequence learning.

Event-related potentials (ERPs); Error-related Negativity (ERN); Cognitive control; Motor learning; Serial reaction time task