Acquisition, maintenance, and therapeutic use of a simple motor skill

TitleAcquisition, maintenance, and therapeutic use of a simple motor skill
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsNorton, JJS, Wolpaw, J
JournalCurrent Opinion in Behavioral Sciences
Pagination138 - 144

Operant conditioning of the spinal stretch reflex (SSR) or its electrical analog, the H-reflex, is a valuable experimental paradigm for studying the acquisition and maintenance of a simple motor skill. The central nervous system (CNS) substrate of this skill consists of brain and spinal cord plasticity that operates as a hierarchy—the learning experience induces plasticity in the brain that guides and maintains plasticity in the spinal cord. This is apparent in the two components of the skill acquisition: task-dependent adaptation, reflecting brain plasticity; and long-term change, reflecting gradual development of spinal plasticity. The inferior olive, cerebellum, sensorimotor cortex, and corticospinal tract (CST) are essential components of this hierarchy. The neuronal and synaptic mechanisms of the spinal plasticity are under study. Because acquisition of this skill changes the spinal cord, it can affect other skills, such as locomotion. Thus, it enables investigation of how the highly plastic spinal cord supports the acquisition and maintenance of a broad repertoire of motor skills throughout life. These studies have resulted in the negotiated equilibrium model of spinal cord function, which reconciles the spinal cord's long-recognized reliability as the final common pathway for behaviors with its recently recognized ongoing plasticity. In accord with this model, appropriate H-reflex conditioning in a person with spasticity due to an incomplete spinal cord injury can trigger wider beneficial plasticity that markedly improves walking. H-reflex operant conditioning appears to provide a valuable new method for enhancing functional recovery in people with spinal cord injury and possibly other disorders as well.


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