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Shifts in cortical representations predict human discrimination improvement

Shifts in cortical representations predict human discrimination improvement

Authors: 
Pleger B., Dinsedagger H.R., Ragertdagger P., Schwenkreis P., Malin J.P. & Tegenthoff M.
Year: 
2001
Journal: 
Proceedings of the National Academy of Science
Abstract: 

We report experiments combining assessment of spatial tactile discrimination behavior and measurements of somatosensory-evoked potentials in human subjects before and after short-term plastic changes to demonstrate a causal link between the degree of altered performance and reorganization. Plastic changes were induced by a Hebbian coactivation protocol of simultaneous pairing of tactile stimuli. As a result of coactivation, spatial discrimination thresholds were lowered; however, the amount of discrimination improvement was variable across subjects. Analysis of somatosensory-evoked potentials revealed a significant, but also variable shift in the localization of the N20-dipole of the index finger that was coactivated. The Euclidean distance between the dipole pre- and post-coactivation was significantly larger on the coactivated side (mean 9.13 ± 3.4 mm) than on the control side (mean 4.90 ± 2.7 mm, P = 0.008). Changes of polar angles indicated a lateral and inferior shift on the postcentral gyrus of the left hemisphere representing the coactivated index finger. To explore how far the variability of improvement was reflected in the degree of reorganization, we correlated the perceptual changes with the N20-dipole shifts. We found that the changes in discrimination abilities could be predicted from the changes in dipole localization. Little gain in spatial discrimination was associated with small changes in dipole shifts. In contrast, subjects who showed a large cortical reorganization also had lowest thresholds. All changes were highly selective as no transfer to the index finger of the opposite, non-coactivated hand was found. Our results indicate that human spatial discrimination performance is subject to improvement on a short time scale by a Hebbian stimulation protocol without invoking training, attention, or reinforcement. Plastic processes related to the improvement were localized in primary somatosensory cortex and were scaled with the degree of the individual perceptual improvement.

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