Vestibular benefits to task savings in motor adaptation

What's it about?

Imagine you’re trying to walk in a straight line while the wind is pushing you sideways. After a while, you learn how to adjust your steps to compensate for the wind so you can walk straight. Now, what if the wind suddenly changes direction? You’d have to adjust your steps all over again, right? Our bodies are pretty amazing because they can learn to adapt to these changes. We rely on signals or cues from our senses to do this.

In this study, we wanted to understand more about how we learn to adapt our movements when conditions change. Think of it as if you were on a moving platform that suddenly starts to shift you to the left or right while you’re trying to reach for something straight ahead of you.

At first, it’s confusing, and you might miss the object you’re reaching for. But after several tries (we tested it with 160 attempts), you learn how to adjust your reaching to the left or right to compensate for the sideways motion. Now, let’s say you’ve got the hang of reaching correctly while the platform is moving you to the left. But then the platform starts shifting you to the right. You have to adjust all over again, right?

But here’s where it gets interesting: the second time you’re exposed to the same situation (let’s say the platform shifting you to the left again after it had shifted you to the right), you adapt much quicker, about 3 times faster than the first time. It seems that your body remembered how to handle that situation.

We believe this is happening because your body’s balance system (the “vestibular” system) is providing helpful cues. These cues give feedback about why you’re missing your reach (it’s due to the platform shifting you around) and help you adapt your movements more efficiently. This way, you’re able to better learn and remember different strategies for reaching, depending on whether the platform is moving you to the left or right.

In other words, our bodies are pretty amazing. They can learn from balance-related cues to better handle changing conditions, reducing confusion and helping us navigate our world more effectively.


Authors: Adjmal Sarwary, Luc PJ Selen, W Pieter Medendorp

Publication date: 2015/09/13

Journal: Journal of neurophysiology

Volume: 110

Issue: 6

Pages: 1269-1277

Publisher: American Physiological Society

Link to the paper: Vestibular benefits to task savings in motor adaptation


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