It has been suggested that the cerebellum plays a critical role in learning to make movements more "automatic" (i.e., requiring less attention to the details of a movement). We hypothesized that cerebellar damage compromises learning of movement automaticity, resulting in increased attentional demands for movement control. The purpose of our study was to determine whether cerebellar damage disrupts the ability to make a practiced movement more automatic. We developed a dual task paradigm using two tasks that did not have overlapping sensory or motor requirements for execution. Our motor task required subjects to maintain an upright posture while performing a figure-8 movement using their arm. This motor task was chosen to simulate requirements of everyday movements (e.g., standing while reaching for objects), but it was novel enough to require practice for improvement. Our secondary task was an auditory vigilance task where subjects listened to letter sequences and were asked to identify the number of times a target letter was heard. We tested controls and people with cerebellar damage as they practiced the movement task alone and then performed it with the auditory task. We recorded 3D position data from the arm, trunk, and leg during the movement task. Errors were recorded for both the movement and the letter tasks. Our results show that cerebellar subjects can improve the movement to a very limited extent with practice. Unlike controls, the motor performance of cerebellar subjects deteriorates to prepractice levels when attention is focused away from the movement during dual task trials. Control subjects' insensitivity to dual task interference after practice was due to learned movement automaticity and was not a reflection of better dual task performance generally. Overall, our findings suggest that the cerebellum may be important for shifting movement performance from an attentionally demanding (unpracticed) state to a more automatic (practiced) state.
ASJC Scopus subject areas