"It's as if a golfer went to the driving range and was terrible, hitting the ball into the trees all day and not getting any better," said Charlesworth. "Then, at the end of the day, you throw a switch and all of a sudden you're hitting the fairway like you're Tiger Woods."
Normally, you'd expect improvement in skill performance like this to take time as the basal ganglia evaluates information, makes changes and gets new feedback, Brainard said.
"The surprise here is that the basal ganglia can pay attention, observe what other motor structures are doing and get information even when they aren't involved in motor control," Brainard said. "They covertly learned how to improve skill performance and this explains how they did it."
These findings suggest that the basal ganglia's "smartness" is due in large part to the steady flow of information they receive about the commands of other motor structures. It also portrays the basal ganglia as far more versatile than previously understood, able to learn how to calibrate fine-motor skills by acting as a specialized hub that receives information from various parts of the brain and responds to that information with new directives.
The findings also support the notion that problems in the basal ganglia circuit's ability to receive information and learn from it may help trigger the movement disorders that are symptoms of Huntington's and Parkinson's, Brainard said.
|Contact: Jennifer O'Brien|
University of California - San Francisco