Failure to Engage Neural Plasticity through Practice of a High-difficulty Task is Accompanied by Reduced Motor Skill Retention in Older Adults

Josje M. Bootsma*, Simone R. Caljouw, Menno P. Veldman, Natasha M. Maurits, John C. Rothwell, Tibor Hortobagyi

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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White the difficulty of a motor task can act as a stimulus for learning in younger adults, it is unknown how task difficulty interacts with age-related reductions in motor performance and altered brain activation. We examined the effects of task difficulty on motor performance and used electroencephalography (EEG) to probe task-related brain activation after acquisition and 24-h retention of a mirror star-tracing skill in healthy older adults (N = 36, 65-86 years). The results showed that the difficulty of the motor skill affected both the magnitude of motor skill learning and the underlying neural mechanisms. Behavioral data revealed that practicing a motor task at a high difficulty level hindered motor skill consolidation. The EEG data indicated that task difficulty modulated changes in brain activation after practice. Specifically, a decrease in task-related alpha power in frontal and parietal electrodes was only present after practice of the skill at the low and medium, but not the high difficulty level. Taken together, our findings show that a failure to engage neural plasticity through practice of a highdifficulty task is accompanied by reduced motor skill retention in older adults. The data help us better understand how older adults learn new motor skills and might have implications for prescribing motor skill practice according to its difficulty in rehabilitation settings. (c) 2020 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd on behalf of IBRO. This is an open access article under the CC BY license (

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)22-35
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - 15-Dec-2020


  • aging
  • EEG
  • motor learning
  • plasticity
  • skill retention
  • spectral analysis

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