Decay of motor memories in the absence of error

Pavan A. Vaswani, Reza Shadmehr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When motor commands are accompanied by an unexpected outcome, the resulting error induces changes in subsequent commands. However, when errors are artificially eliminated, changes in motor commands are not sustained but show decay. Why does the adaptation-induced change in motor output decay in the absence of error? A prominent idea is that decay reflects the stability of the memory. We show results that challenge this idea and instead suggest that motor output decays because the brain actively disengages a component of the memory. Humans adapted their reaching movements to a perturbation and were then introduced to a long period of trials in which errors were absent (error-clamp). We found that, in some subjects, motor output did not decay at the onset of the error-clamp block but a few trials later. We manipulated the kinematics of movements in the error-clamp block and found that, as movements became more similar to subjects' natural movements in the perturbation block, the lag to decay onset became longer and eventually reached hundreds of trials. Furthermore, when there was decay in the motor output, the endpoint of decay was not zero but a fraction of the motor memory that was last acquired. Therefore, adaptation to a perturbation installed two distinct kinds of memories: (1) one that was disengaged when the brain detected a change in the task and (2) one that persisted despite it. Motor memories showed little decay in the absence of error if the brain was prevented from detecting a change in task conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7700-7709
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number18
StatePublished - 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)

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