Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 236, Issue 10, pp 2829–2838 | Cite as

Changes in corticospinal excitability associated with motor learning by observing

  • Heather R. McGregor
  • Michael Vesia
  • Cricia Rinchon
  • Robert Chen
  • Paul L. GribbleEmail author
Research Article


While many of our motor skills are acquired through physical practice, we can also learn how to make movements by observing others. For example, individuals can learn how to reach in novel dynamical environments (‘force fields’, FF) by observing the movements of a tutor. Previous neurophysiological and neuroimaging studies in humans suggest a role for the motor system in motor learning by observing. Here, we tested the role of primary motor cortex (M1) in motor learning by observing. We used single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation to elicit motor-evoked potentials (MEPs) in hand muscles at rest. MEPs were elicited before and after participants observed either a video showing a tutor adapting her reaches to an FF or a control video showing a tutor performing reaches in an unlearnable FF. During MEP acquisition, participants fixated a crosshair while their hand muscles were relaxed. We predicted that observing motor learning would result in greater increases in offline M1 excitability compared to observing movements that did not involve learning. We found that observing FF learning resulted in subsequent increases in MEP amplitudes recorded from right first dorsal interosseous and right abductor pollicis brevis muscles at rest. There were no changes in MEP amplitudes after control participants observed a tutor performing similar movements but not learning. The observed MEP changes can thus be specifically linked to observing motor learning. These results are consistent with the idea that observing motor learning produces functional changes in M1, corticospinal networks or both.


Human Motor learning Action observation Primary motor cortex Corticospinal excitability Transcranial magnetic stimulation 



Force field






Maximum perpendicular deviation


Transcranial magnetic stimulation


Motor-evoked potential



The authors wish to thank Dinant Kistemaker for the figure showing the robotic manipulandum setup. This work was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development R01 HD075740.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors report no financial interests or conflicts of interests.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Brain and Mind InstituteThe University of Western OntarioLondonCanada
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyThe University of Western OntarioLondonCanada
  3. 3.Graduate Program in NeuroscienceThe University of Western OntarioLondonCanada
  4. 4.Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Schulich School of Medicine and DentistryThe University of Western OntarioLondonCanada
  5. 5.Krembil Research InstituteToronto Western HospitalTorontoCanada
  6. 6.School of KinesiologyUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  7. 7.Haskins LaboratoriesNew HavenUSA

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