Brain activity and functional connectivity patterns associated with fast and slow motor sequence learning in late middle adulthood
The human brain undergoes structural and functional changes across the lifespan. The study of motor sequence learning in elderly subjects is of particularly interest since previous findings in young adults might not replicate during later stages of adulthood. The present functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study assessed the performance, brain activity and functional connectivity patterns associated with motor sequence learning in late middle adulthood. For this purpose, a total of 25 subjects were evaluated during early stages of learning [i.e., fast learning (FL)]. A subset of these subjects (n = 11) was evaluated after extensive practice of a motor sequence [i.e., slow learning (SL) phase]. As expected, late middle adults improved motor performance from FL to SL. Learning-related brain activity patterns replicated most of the findings reported previously in young subjects except for the lack of hippocampal activity during FL and the involvement of cerebellum during SL. Regarding functional connectivity, precuneus and sensorimotor lobule VI of the cerebellum showed a central role during improvement of novel motor performance. In the sample of subjects evaluated, connectivity between the posterior putamen and parietal and frontal regions was significantly decreased with aging during SL. This age-related connectivity pattern may reflect losses in network efficiency when approaching late adulthood. Altogether, these results may have important applications, for instance, in motor rehabilitation programs.