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Reinforcement Signaling Can Be Used to Reduce Elements of Cerebellar Reaching Ataxia


Damage to the cerebellum causes a disabling movement disorder called ataxia, which is characterized by poorly coordinated movement. Arm ataxia causes dysmetria (over- or under-shooting of targets) with many corrective movements. As a result, people with cerebellar damage exhibit reaching movements with highly irregular and prolonged movement paths. Cerebellar patients are also impaired in error-based motor learning, which may impede rehabilitation interventions. However, we have recently shown that cerebellar patients can learn a simple reaching task using a binary reinforcement paradigm, in which feedback is based on participants’ mean performance. Here, we present a pilot study that examined whether patients with cerebellar damage can use this reinforcement training to learn a more complex motor task—to decrease the path length of their reaches. We compared binary reinforcement training to a control condition of massed practice without reinforcement feedback. In both conditions, participants made target-directed reaches in 3-dimensional space while vision of their movement was occluded. In the reinforcement training condition, reaches with a path length below participants’ mean were reinforced with an auditory stimulus at reach endpoint. We found that patients were able to use reinforcement signaling to significantly reduce their reach paths. Massed practice produced no systematic change in patients’ reach performance. Overall, our results suggest that binary reinforcement training can improve reaching movements in patients with cerebellar damage and the benefit cannot be attributed solely to repetition or reduced visual control.

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This work was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development HD040289 to AJB and a Johns Hopkins Distinguished Science of Learning Fellowship to AST.

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Correspondence to Amanda S. Therrien.

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Therrien, A.S., Statton, M.A. & Bastian, A.J. Reinforcement Signaling Can Be Used to Reduce Elements of Cerebellar Reaching Ataxia. Cerebellum 20, 62–73 (2021).

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  • Cerebellum
  • Ataxia
  • Reinforcement
  • Motor learning
  • Reaching