Changes in brain activity during motor learning measured with PET: Effects of hand of performance and practice

H. Van Mier, L. W. Tempel, J. S. Perlmutter, M. E. Raichle, S. E. Petersen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

179 Scopus citations


The aim of this study is to assess brain activity measured during continuous performance of design tracing tasks. Three issues were addressed: identification of brain areas involved in performing maze and square tracing tasks, investigation of differences and similarities in these areas related to dominant and nondominant hand performance, and most importantly, examination of the effects of practice in these areas. A total of 32 normal, right-handed subjects were instructed to move a pen with the dominant right hand (16 subjects) or nondominant left hand (16 subjects) continuously through cut-out maze and square patterns with their eyes closed during a 40- s positron emission tomography (PET) scan to measure regional blood flow. There were six conditions: 1) holding the pen on a writing tablet without moving it (rest condition); 2) tracing a maze without practice; 3) tracing the same maze after 10 min of practice; 4) tracing a novel maze; and tracing an easily learned square design at 5) high or 6) low speed. To identify brain areas generally related to continuous tracing, data analyses were performed on the combined data acquired during the five tracing scans minus rest conditions. Areas activated included: primary and secondary motor areas, somatosensory, parietal, and inferior frontal cortex, thalamus, and several cerebellar regions. Then comparisons were made between right- and left-hand performance. There were no significant differences in performance. As for brain activations, only primary motor cortex and anterior cerebellum showed activations that switched with hand of performance. All other areas, with the exception of the midbrain, showed activations that were common for both right- and left-hand performance. These areas were further analyzed for significant conditional effects. We found patterns of activation related to velocity in the contralateral primary motor cortex, related to unskilled performance in right premotor and parietal areas and left cerebellum, related to skilled performance in supplementary motor area (SMA), and related to the level of capacity at which subjects were performing in left premotor cortex, ipsilateral anterior cerebellum, right posterior cerebellum and right dentate nucleus. These findings demonstrate two important principles: 1) practice produces a shift in activity from one set of areas to a different area and 2) practice-related activations appeared in the same hemisphere regardless of the hand used, suggesting that some of the areas related to maze learning must code information at an abstract level that is distinct from the motor performance of the task itself.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2177-2199
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1998


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