Variable neural contributions to explicit and implicit learning during visuomotor adaptation

Sook Lei Liew, Tziporah Thompson, Joel Ramirez, Peter A. Butcher, Jordan A. Taylor, Pablo A. Celnik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


We routinely make fine motor adjustments to maintain optimal motor performance. These adaptations have been attributed to both implicit, error-based mechanisms, and explicit, strategy-based mechanisms. However, little is known about the neural basis of implicit vs. explicit learning. Here, we aimed to use anodal transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to probe the relationship between different brain regions and learning mechanisms during a visuomotor adaptation task in humans. We hypothesized that anodal tDCS over the cerebellum (CB) should increase implicit learning while anodal tDCS over the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), a region associated with higher-level cognition, should facilitate explicit learning. Using a horizontal visuomotor adaptation task that measures explicit/implicit contributions to learning (Taylor et al., 2014), we found that dlPFC stimulation significantly improved performance compared to the other groups, and weakly increased explicit learning. However, CB stimulation had no effects on either target error or implicit learning. Previous work showed variable CB stimulation effects only on a vertical visuomotor adaptation task (Jalali et al., 2017), so in Experiment 2, we conducted the same study using a vertical context to see if we could find effects of CB stimulation. We found only weak effects of CB stimulation on target error and implicit learning, and now the dlPFC effect did not replicate. To resolve this discrepancy, in Experiment 3, we examined the effect of context (vertical vs. horizontal) on implicit and explicit contributions and found that individuals performed significantly worse and used greater implicit learning in the vertical screen condition compared to the horizontal screen condition. Across all experiments, however, there was high inter-individual variability, with strong influences of a few individuals, suggesting that these effects are not consistent across individuals. Overall, this work provides preliminary support for the idea that different neural regions can be engaged to improve visuomotor adaptation, but shows that each region's effects are highly context-dependent and not clearly dissociable from one another. This holds implications especially in neurorehabilitation, where an intact neural region could be engaged to potentially compensate if another region is impaired. Future work should examine factors influencing interindividual variability during these processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number610
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Issue numberSEP
StatePublished - Sep 18 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Neuroscience


  • Cerebellum
  • Context-dependent learning
  • Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC)
  • Explicit learning
  • Implicit learning
  • TDCS
  • Visuomotor adaptation-learning


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