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A critical re-evaluation of fMRI signatures of motor sequence learning

  1. Eva Berlot
  2. Nicola J Popp
  3. Jörn Diedrichsen  Is a corresponding author
  1. University of Western Ontario, Canada
Research Article
  • Cited 6
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Cite this article as: eLife 2020;9:e55241 doi: 10.7554/eLife.55241


Despite numerous studies, there is little agreement about what brain changes accompany motor sequence learning, partly because of a general publication bias that favors novel results. We therefore decided to systematically reinvestigate proposed functional magnetic resonance imaging correlates of motor learning in a preregistered longitudinal study with four scanning sessions over 5 weeks of training. Activation decreased more for trained than untrained sequences in premotor and parietal areas, without any evidence of learning-related activation increases. Premotor and parietal regions also exhibited changes in the fine-grained, sequence-specific activation patterns early in learning, which stabilized later. No changes were observed in the primary motor cortex (M1). Overall, our study provides evidence that human motor sequence learning occurs outside of M1. Furthermore, it shows that we cannot expect to find activity increases as an indicator for learning, making subtle changes in activity patterns across weeks the most promising fMRI correlate of training-induced plasticity.

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Eva Berlot

    The Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada
    Competing interests
    No competing interests declared.
  2. Nicola J Popp

    The Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada
    Competing interests
    No competing interests declared.
  3. Jörn Diedrichsen

    The Brain and Mind Institute, Department of Statistical and Actuarial Sciences, Department of Computer Science, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    Jörn Diedrichsen, Reviewing editor, eLife.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0003-0264-8532


Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC Discovery Grant (RGPIN-2016-04890))

  • Jörn Diedrichsen

Canada First Research Excellence Fund (BrainsCAN)

  • Jörn Diedrichsen

Ontario Trillium Foundation (Graduate Student Scholarship (to EB))

  • Jörn Diedrichsen

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.


Human subjects: Informed consent and data usage agreement was obtained from participants prior to the onset of the study. It was emphasized that participants could withdraw from the study at any timepoint. The experimental procedures were approved by the Ethics Committee at Western University (HSREB File Number: 107061).

Reviewing Editor

  1. Marius V Peelen, Radboud University, Netherlands

Publication history

  1. Received: January 17, 2020
  2. Accepted: April 28, 2020
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: May 13, 2020 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: June 2, 2020 (version 2)


© 2020, Berlot et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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