Advanced spatial knowledge of target location eliminates age-related differences in early sensorimotor learning
© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019. Publisher's version of record: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00221-019-05551-w
Motor learning has been shown to decline in healthy aging, particularly in the early stages of acquisition. There is now ample evidence that motor learning relies on multiple interacting learning processes that operate on different timescales, but the specific cognitive mechanisms that contribute to motor learning remain unclear. Working memory resources appear to be particularly important during the early stages of motor learning, and declines in early motor learning have been associated with working memory performance in older adults. We examined whether age differences in the early stages of motor learning could be reduced or eliminated by reducing the spatial working memory demands during a force-field adaptation task. Groups of younger and older adults made center-out reaching movements to spatial targets either in a repeating four-element sequence, or in a random order. Participants also performed a battery of cognitive tests to further investigate the potential involvement of associative memory, spatial working memory, and procedural learning mechanisms in the early stage of motor learning. Although all groups adapted their movements equally well by the end of the learning phase, older adults only adapted as quickly as younger adults in the sequence condition, with the older adults in the random group exhibiting slower learning in the earliest stage of motor learning. Across all participants, early motor learning performance was correlated with recognition memory performance on an associative memory test. Within the younger random group, who were able to adapt as quickly as the sequence groups, early motor learning performance was also correlated with performance on a test of procedural learning. These findings suggest that age differences in early stages of motor learning can be eliminated if the spatial working memory demands involved in a motor learning task are limited. Moreover, the results suggest that multiple cognitive resources may be utilized during the early stage of learning, and younger adults may be more flexible than older adults in the recruitment of additional cognitive resources to support learning when spatial working memory demands are high.