Persistence of motor memories reflects statistics of the learning event

Huang and Shadmehr (2009) Journal of Neurophysiology.      

Abstract  Learning to control a new tool (i.e., a novel environment) produces an internal model, i.e., a motor memory that allows the brain to implicitly predict the behavior of the tool.  Data from a wide array of experiments suggest that formation of motor memory is not a single process, but one that is due to multiple adaptive processes with different time constants. Here, we asked whether these time constants are invariant, or are they influenced by the statistics of the learning event.  To measure the time-constants, we controlled the statistics of the learning event in a reaching task and then assayed the decay rates of motor output in a set of trials in which errors were effectively removed.  We found that prior experience with a rapid change in the environment increased the decay rate of memories acquired later in response to a gradual change in the same environment.  Prior experience in an environment that changed gradually reduced the decay rates of memories acquired later in response to a rapid change in that same environment.  Indeed, we found that by manipulating the prior statistics of the learning experience, we could readily alter the decay rates of a given motor memory.  This suggests that timescales of processes that support motor memory are not constant.  Rather, decay of motor memory is the brain’s implicit estimate of how likely it is that the environment will change with time.  During motor learning, prior statistics that suggest changes are likely to be permanent result in slowly decaying memories, whereas prior statistics that suggest changes are transient result in rapidly decaying memories.