Experience modulates motor imagery-based brain activity [Reserch report]

Sarah N. Kraeutner1,2, Sean R. McWhinney2, Jack P. Solomon1,2. Lori Dithurbide2,3,4, and Shaun G. Boe1,2,3,4
1. Laboratory for Brain Recovery and Function, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada
2. Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada
3. School of Physiotherapy, Dalhousie University, Rm 407, 4th Floor Forrest Building, 5869 University Avenue, PO Box 15000, Halifax, NS B3H 4R2, Canada
4. School of Health and Human Performance, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada

First published: 07 March 2018 in European Journal of Neuroscience - https://doi.org/10.1111/ejn.13900

Keywords: event-related desynchronization, expertise, magnetoencephalography, source analysis

Abstract. Whether or not brain activation during motor imagery (MI), the mental rehearsal of movement, is modulated by experience (i.e. skilled performance, achieved through long-term practice) remains unclear. Specifically, MI is generally associated with diffuse activation patterns that closely resemble novice physical performance, which may be attributable to a lack of experience with the task being imagined vs. being a distinguishing feature of MI. We sought to examine how experience modulates brain activity driven via MI, implementing a within- and between-group design to manipulate experience across tasks as well as expertise of the participants. Two groups of ‘experts’ (basketball/volleyball athletes) and ‘novices’ (recreational controls) underwent magnetoencephalography (MEG) while performing MI of four multi-articular tasks, selected to ensure that the degree of experience that participants had with each task varied. Source-level analysis was applied to MEG data and linear mixed effects modelling was conducted to examine task-related changes in activity. Within- and between-group comparisons were completed post hoc and difference maps were plotted. Brain activation patterns observed during MI of tasks for which participants had a low degree of experience were more widespread and bilateral (i.e. within-groups), with limited differences observed during MI of tasks for which participants had similar experience (i.e. between-groups). Thus, we show that brain activity during MI is modulated by experience; specifically, that novice performance is associated with the additional recruitment of regions across both hemispheres. Future investigations of the neural correlates of MI should consider prior experience when selecting the task to be performed.