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We used positron emission tomography to study motor learning by trial and error. Subjects learned sequences of eight finger movements. Tones generated by a computer told the subjects whether any particular move was correct or incorrect. A control condition was used in which the subjects generated moves, but there was no feedback to indicate success or failure, and so on learning occurred. In this condition (free selection) the subjects were required to make a finger movement on each trial and to vary the movements randomly over trials. The subjects had a free choice of which finger to move on any one trial. On this task there was no systematic change in responses over trials and no change in the response times. Two other conditions were included. In one the subjects repetitively moved the same finger on all trials and in a baseline condition the subjects heard the pacing tones and auditory feedback but made no movements. Comparing new learning with the free selection task, there was a small activation in the right prefrontal cortex. This may reflect the fact that in new learning, but not free selection, the subject rehearse past moves and adapt their responses accordingly. The caudate nucleus was strongly activated during new learning. It is suggested that this activity may be related either to mental rehearsal or to reinforcement of the movements as a consequence of the outcomes. The putamen was activated anteriorly on the free selection task and more posteriorly when the subjects repetitively made the same movement. It is suggested that the differences in the location of the peak activation in the striatum may represent the operation of different corticostriatal loops. The cerebellar nuclei (bilaterally) and vermis were more active in the new learning condition than during the performance of the free selection task. There was no difference in the activation of the cerebellum when the free selection task was compared with repetitive performance of the same movement. We tentatively suggest that the basal ganglia may be involved in the specification of movement on the basis of memory of either the movements or the outcomes, but that the cerebellum may be more directly involved in changes in the parameters of movement execution.

Original publication




Journal article


J Neurophysiol

Publication Date





1325 - 1337


Acoustic Stimulation, Adult, Basal Ganglia, Cerebellum, Fingers, Humans, Learning, Male, Middle Aged, Movement, Psychomotor Performance, Tomography, Emission-Computed