For many motor tasks, when you learn with one hand, you automatically become better with the other hand. How does this process happen, given the laterality of the hand motor cortices (i.e., left M1 controls the right hand, right M1 controls the left)? Tomorrow at Sensorimotor Journal Club, Sri Nagarajan will present an article describing several studies that point to the central role area that the supplementary motor areas (SMA) play in this process:
Perez, M. A., Tanaka, S., Wise, S. P., Sadato, N., Tanabe, H. C., Willingham, D. T., et al. (2007). Neural substrates of intermanual transfer of a newly acquired motor skill. Current Biology, 17(21), 1896-1902. (link to pdf of article) (link to supplementary data)
In healthy humans, the two cerebral hemispheres show functional specialization to a degree unmatched in other animals, and such strong hemispheric specialization contributes to unimanual skill acquisition [1, 2]. When most humans learn a new motor skill with one hand, this process results in performance improvements in the opposite hand as well [3-6]. Despite the obvious adaptive advantage of such intermanual transfer, there is no direct evidence identifying the neural substrates of this form of skill acquisition [7-9]. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study brain regions activated during intermanual transfer of a learned sequence of finger movements. First, we found that the supplementary motor area (SMA) has more activity when a skill has transferred well than when it has transferred poorly. Second, we found that fMRI activity in the ventrolateral posterior thalamic nucleus correlated with successful future intermanual transfer, whereas activity in the ventrolateral anterior thalamic nucleus correlated with past intermanual transfer. Third, we found that repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation applied over the SMA blocked intermanual transfer without affecting skill acquisition. These findings provide direct evidence for an SMA-based mechanism that supports intermanual transfer of motor-skill learning.