PLOS Computational Biology

The Decay of Motor Memories Is Independent of Context Change Detection

Andrew E. Brennan et al..

by Andrew E. Brennan, Maurice A. Smith

When the error signals that guide human motor learning are withheld following training, recently-learned motor memories systematically regress toward untrained performance. It has previously been hypothesized that this regression results from an intrinsic volatility in these memories, resulting in an inevitable decay in the absence of ongoing error signals. However, a recently-proposed alternative posits that even recently-acquired motor memories are intrinsically stable, decaying only if a change in context is detected. This new theory, the context-dependent decay hypothesis, makes two key predictions: (1) after error signals are withheld, decay onset should be systematically delayed until the context change is detected; and (2) manipulations that impair detection by masking context changes should result in prolonged delays in decay onset and reduced decay amplitude at any given time. Here we examine the decay of motor adaptation following the learning of novel environmental dynamics in order to carefully evaluate this hypothesis. To account for potential issues in previous work that supported the context-dependent decay hypothesis, we measured decay using a balanced and baseline-referenced experimental design that allowed for direct comparisons between analogous masked and unmasked context changes. Using both an unbiased variant of the previous decay onset analysis and a novel highly-powered group-level version of this analysis, we found no evidence for systematically delayed decay onset nor for the masked context change affecting decay amplitude or its onset time. We further show how previous estimates of decay onset latency can be substantially biased in the presence of noise, and even more so with correlated noise, explaining the discrepancy between the previous results and our findings. Our results suggest that the decay of motor memories is an intrinsic feature of error-based learning that does not depend on context change detection.