Changes in brain activation during the acquisition of a multifrequency bimanual coordination task: from the cognitive stage to advanced levels of automaticity.
Little is known about activation changes reflecting overlearning, i.e., extensive motor training beyond asymptotic performance. Here we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to trace the neural shifts from an initial to a skilled (learning) and finally overlearned stage (automatization). Scanning occurred before training (PRE) and after 1 (MID) and 2 weeks (POST) of intensive practice on a new bimanual coordination task (>10,500 cycles). Kinematics revealed major improvements between PRE and MID sessions, whereas MID to POST session performance leveled off, indicative of learning and automatization, respectively. Imaging findings showed that activation decreased in bilateral opercular areas, bilateral ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, the right ventral premotor and supramarginal gyrus, and the anterior cingulate sulcus during the learning stage and in the supplementary motor area during the automatization stage. These changes are hypothesized to reflect decreases in attention-demanding sensory processing, as well as suppression of preferred coordination tendencies as a prelude to acquiring new coordination modes. Conversely, learning-related increases were observed in the primary motor cortex (M1), posterior cingulate zone (PCZ), putamen, and right anterior cerebellum. Importantly, both M1 and PCZ activation decreased again to initial level (PRE) during automated performance (POST). Only the putamen and anterior cerebellum remained more activated across both learning and automatization stages, supporting their crucial role in long-term motor memory formation for coordination tasks.