Complex motor tasks are learned through training which results in lasting improvement in sensorimotor performance and accuracy. Learning a motor skill is commonly attained via physical execution. However, research has shown that cognitive training, such as motor imagery (MI), effectively facilitates skill learning. Neurophysiological findings suggest that learning-induced plasticity in the human motor cortex, subserving consolidation and retention of motor skills, is stronger after movement execution (ME) than after MI training. Here, we designed an experimental task able to test for the fast and slow learning phases and for retention of motor skills for both MI and ME. We hypothesize that differences between MI and ME training would emerge in terms of reduced consolidation and retention of motor skills. Twenty-four young healthy subjects were divided into two groups, performing MI or ME training. Participants wore sensor-engineered gloves and their sensorimotor performance was assessed over a period of 15 days with 4-days training. We analysed the touch duration (TD), the inter-tapping interval (ITI), movement rate and accuracy. Results showed that (i) during the first phase of acquisition of motor skills, sensorimotor performance improved similarly in MI and ME groups; (ii) during the second learning phase movement rate increased more in ME than MI group and this difference was mainly driven by differences in the duration of TD; (iii) consolidation deficits with MI training reflected in impaired retention of the acquired skills, as TD and ITI were larger and movement rate was lower in the MI group with respect to the ME, till to 10 days after the last training session. Explicit component of motor learning, accuracy, was maintained in retention phase in both groups. Following our hypothesis, our findings show that MI training is as effective as ME within the first learning phase, but consolidation and retention of motor skills are less effective following MI training. This study highlights MI limitations and suggests option to enhance MI, as by providing an external sensory feedback.
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