Can patients with cerebellar disease switch learning mechanisms to reduce their adaptation deficits?

Aaron L. Wong, Cherie L. Marvel, Jordan A. Taylor, John W. Krakauer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Systematic perturbations in motor adaptation tasks are primarily countered by learning from sensory-prediction errors, with secondary contributions from other learning processes. Despite the availability of these additional processes, particularly the use of explicit re-aiming to counteract observed target errors, patients with cerebellar degeneration are surprisingly unable to compensate for their sensory-prediction error deficits by spontaneously switching to another learning mechanism. We hypothesized that if the nature of the task was changed - by allowing vision of the hand, which eliminates sensory-prediction errors - patients could be induced to preferentially adopt aiming strategies to solve visuomotor rotations. To test this, we first developed a novel visuomotor rotation paradigm that provides participants with vision of their hand in addition to the cursor, effectively setting the sensory-prediction error signal to zero. We demonstrated in younger healthy control subjects that this promotes a switch to strategic re-aiming based on target errors. We then showed that with vision of the hand, patients with cerebellar degeneration could also switch to an aiming strategy in response to visuomotor rotations, performing similarly to age-matched participants (older controls). Moreover, patients could retrieve their learned aiming solution after vision of the hand was removed (although they could not improve beyond what they retrieved), and retain it for at least 1 year. Both patients and older controls, however, exhibited impaired overall adaptation performance compared to younger healthy controls (age 18-33 years), likely due to age-related reductions in spatial and working memory. Patients also failed to generalize, i.e. they were unable to adopt analogous aiming strategies in response to novel rotations. Hence, there appears to be an inescapable obligatory dependence on sensory-prediction error-based learning - even when this system is impaired in patients with cerebellar disease. The persistence of sensory-prediction error-based learning effectively suppresses a switch to target error-based learning, which perhaps explains the unexpectedly poor performance by patients with cerebellar degeneration in visuomotor adaptation tasks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)662-673
Number of pages12
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Clinical Neurology


  • ageing
  • aiming strategy
  • cerebellar disease
  • retrieval
  • visuomotor adaptation


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