Enhancing Hebbian learning to control brain oscillatory activity

Surjo R. Soekadar, Matthias Witkowski, Niels Birbaumer, Leonardo G. Cohen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Sensorimotor rhythms (SMR, 8-15 Hz) are brain oscillations associated with successful motor performance, imagery, and imitation. Voluntary modulation of SMR can be used to control brain-machine interfaces (BMI) in the absence of any physical movements. The mechanisms underlying acquisition of such skill are unknown. Here, we provide evidence for a causal link between function of the primary motor cortex (M1), active during motor skill learning and retention, and successful acquisition of abstract skills such as control over SMR. Thirty healthy participants were trained on 5 consecutive days to control SMR oscillations. Each participant was randomly assigned to one of 3 groups that received either 20 min of anodal, cathodal, or sham transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) over M1. Learning SMR control across training days was superior in the anodal tDCS group relative to the other 2. Cathodal tDCS blocked the beneficial effects of training, as evidenced with sham tDCS. One month later, the newly acquired skill remained superior in the anodal tDCS group. Thus, application of weak electric currents of opposite polarities over M1 differentially modulates learning SMR control, pointing to this primary cortical region as a common substrate for acquisition of physical motor skills and learning to control brain oscillatory activity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2409-2415
Number of pages7
JournalCerebral Cortex
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - Sep 1 2015


  • Brain stimulation
  • Hebbian learning
  • Motor cortex
  • Sensorimotor rhythms

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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