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Rapid Plasticity Of Human Cortical Movement Representation Induced By Practice

Joseph Classen, Joachim Liepert, Steven P. Wise, Mark Hallett, Leonardo G. Cohen

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Classen, Joseph, Joachim Liepert, Steven P. Wise, Mark Hallett, and Leonardo G. Cohen. Rapid plasticity of human cortical movement representation induced by practice. J. Neurophysiol. 79: 1117–1123, 1998. The process of acquiring motor skills through the sustained performance of complex movements is associated with neural plasticity. However, it is unknown whether even simple movements, repeated over a short period of time, are effective in inducing cortical representational changes. Whether the motor cortex can retain specific kinematic aspects of a recently practiced movement is also unknown. We used focal transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the motor cortex to evoke isolated and directionally consistent thumb movements. Thumb movements then were practiced in a different direction. Subsequently, TMS came to evoke movements in or near the recently practiced direction for several minutes before returning to the original direction. To initiate a change of the TMS-evoked movement direction, 15 or 30 min of continuous training were required in most of the subjects and, on two occasions, as little as 5 or 10 min. Substantially smaller effects followed more direct stimulation of corticofugal axons with transcranial electrical stimulation, pointing to cortex as the site of plasticity. These findings suggest that the training rapidly, and transiently, established a change in the cortical network representing the thumb, which encoded kinematic details of the practiced movement. This phenomenon may be regarded as a short-term memory for movement and be the first step of skill acquisition.