It is controversial whether or not old adults are capable of learning new motor skills and consolidate the performance gains into motor memory in the offline period. The underlying neuronal mechanisms are equally unclear. We determined the magnitude of motor learning and motor memory consolidation in healthy old adults and examined if specific metrics of neuronal excitability measured by magnetic brain stimulation mediate the practice and retention effects. Eleven healthy old adults practiced a wrist extension-flexion visuomotor skill for 20 min (MP, 71.3 years), while a second group only watched the templates without movements (attentional control, AC, n = 11, 70.5 years). There was 40 % motor learning in MP but none in AC (interaction, p <0.001) with the skill retained 24 h later in MP and a 16 % improvement in AC. Corticospinal excitability at rest and during task did not change, but when measured during contraction at 20 % of maximal force, it strongly increased in MP and decreased in AC (interaction, p = 0.002). Intracortical inhibition at rest and during the task decreased and facilitation at rest increased in MP, but these metrics changed in the opposite direction in AC. These neuronal changes were especially profound at retention. Healthy old adults can learn a new motor skill and consolidate the learned skill into motor memory, processes that are most likely mediated by disinhibitory mechanisms. These results are relevant for the increasing number of old adults who need to learn and relearn movements during motor rehabilitation.
- Attentional control
- Corticospinal excitability
- Motor practice
- Short-interval intracortical inhibition
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Geriatrics and Gerontology