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Motor skill research 'could help stroke rehabilitation'

Motor skill research 'could help stroke rehabilitation'
9th January 2015

New research into how people learn motor skills could help with the rehabilitation of stroke patients.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and Plymouth University have shown that follow-through motions, which are common in a number of sports, can help us to learn two different skills at once, or to learn a single skill faster.

In sports such as tennis and golf, following through helps maximise velocity or force at the point of impact, and helps prevent injuries by allowing the gradual slowdown of a movement. 

The researchers found this action serves another purpose: it allows distinct motor memories to be learned. As a result of practising the same action with different follow-throughs, various motor memories can be learned for a single movement. 

This process means the brain can quickly inform muscles to carry out the task so that it can be performed seemingly without thinking. 

However, problems can arise when the brain has to remember similar but distinct tasks, as they can 'interfere' with one another.

In order to find out whether we learn a separate motor memory for each task, or a single motor memory for both, researchers studied the presence or absence of interference by having participants learn a 'reaching' task in the presence of two opposite force-fields. 

Those taking part grasped the handle of a robotic interface and made a reaching movement through an opposing force-field to a central target, followed immediately by a second unopposed follow-through movement to one of two possible final targets. 

Different tasks were simulated by changing the direction of the force field. If tasks were learned separately, there would be no interference; whereas if they were learned using the mean of the two opposing force-fields, there would be complete interference. 

The team discovered that the specific motor memory active at any given moment depends on the movement that will be made in the near future. 

A substantial reduction in interference was observed when a follow-through movement was made that anticipated the force-field direction. This suggests different follow-throughs may activate distinct motor memories, enabling us to learn two or more distinct skills without them interfering.

Researchers found tasks were learned much faster when a consistent follow-through was used. 

Dr Ian Howard of Plymouth University, the paper's lead author, said this could help with stroke rehabilitation, which could potentially be speeded up by reducing the variability of movements.

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