Attempting to understand the neurophysiological underpinnings of learned behaviors and the process of learning itself has yielded interesting findings relating to what happens in the brain and across the nervous system when learning a new skill. The nervous system displays several structural, functional and neurochemical adaptations to motor learning which have been highlighted through the use of neuroimaging techniques such as fMRI, EEG and TMS. This review attempts to outline the neural adaptations governing the acquisition and retention of motor skills, as well as build a timeline for these adaptations following Fitt’s model of motor learning (Fitts and Posner 1967). As one moves across the stages of learning (cognitive, associative, autonomous) the nervous system displays an initial increase in activity and plasticity in the frontal associative regions, motor cortical regions, parietal cortices, sensorimotor striatum, associative striatum, cerebral cortices and nuclei and hippocampus (Doyon et al., 2008), as well as the basal ganglia thalamocortical loops, medial cerebellum, anterior cingulate cortex, inferior frontal gyrus and the visual and parietal cortical areas (Seidler 2011). These neuro-plastic adaptations and activation patterns cement and refine themselves in later stages, indicating a more efficient circuitry and decreased cognitive load when performing the skill (Poldrack et al., 2005). In terms of practical applications of these findings, manipulation of the training principles involved in specific contexts of motor skill learning such as training specificity, duration and intensity, may yield improved neural adaptations and in turn performance on the skill in question.



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