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Motivating Motor Learning: The Role of Reward, Punishment and Dopamine

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MotMotLearn (Motivating Motor Learning: The Role of Reward, Punishment and Dopamine)

Reporting period: 2015-10-01 to 2017-03-31

Motor learning (the ability of the brain to learn and update how an action is executed) is a fundamental process which influences many aspects of our lives such as learning to walk during childhood; the day-to-day behavioural adjustments required as an adult or in healthy ageing; and the rehabilitation process following an illness or injury. Despite the impact to society, it has proved extremely difficult to develop interventions that significantly enhance human motor learning. Therefore, devising protocols which optimise motor learning is a state-of-the-art research question that promises to deliver scientific, clinical and societal impact. Seeking reward and avoiding punishment are powerful factors in motivating humans to alter behaviour during cognition-based learning (selecting which action to perform), with sensitivity to reward and punishment being biased by the availability of dopamine in the brain. Intriguingly, reward and punishment are also known to affect generic motor learning (deciding how an action is executed) tasks which involve multiple underlying mechanisms. However to establish their potential for optimizing motor learning, we must understand how explicit reward- and punishment-based motivational feedback impact motor learning systems. Using an unprecedented combination of behavioural analysis, computational modelling, genetics and pharmacology, MotMotLearn will provide the first account of how reward, punishment and dopamine influence motor learning. This novel approach will enable MotMotLearn to develop protocols that utilise reward/punishment to optimise motor learning in healthy individuals and stroke patients suffering motor impairments. MotMotLearn will have a profound scientific impact in motor learning with applications to development, ageing, rehabilitation and sports.
MotMotLearn is successfully on track and has achieved all planned deliverables for the first reporting period. Three exceptional team members were appointed and have all made significant and successful contributions to the project. A major piece of equipment has been acquired whilst ethical approval is in place for all major aspects of the work packages. Data collection for all objectives is currently progressing well. 3 project-related papers and 2 review papers have been published in leading journals and research results have been presented at 4 international/national conferences and 4 world-leading Universities signifying a substantial amount of dissemination in the early stages of the project. These articles are all freely available either as open-access versions on the publisher’s website or on the University of Birmingham’s repository (link: Finally, work form MotMotLearn has been presented at 3 outreach events aimed to disseminate the results to the general public whilst MotMotLearn has its own page on my laboratory website ( and regular updates of the project are provided on my twitter handle (@GaleaLab). The goal of MotMotLearn is understand how reward, punishment and dopamine influences/enhances motor learning. We first investigated how visually distracting information impaired motor behaviour (Mevorach et al., 2016) and the importance of working memory in motor learning (Christou et al., 2016). These are both incredibly important factors to understand, and account for, when providing participants with additional visual feedback, such as points (reward/punishment feedback), which can inadvertently impair motor behaviour and require substantial working memory resources. In addition, we have developed and tested several novel tasks which enable us to isolate specific forms of motor learning and examine the influence of motivation (objective 1). We have found that reward/punishment feedback has substantially differing effects across motor learning paradigms, with explicit awareness and working memory capacity appearing vital. In addition, there also appears to be substantial differences between participants in terms of their sensitivity to reward/punishment feedback. This work has already been published (Chen et al., PLOS Comp Bio, 2017) and presented at several conferences by multiple members of the team. The team are now working on developing computational models to explain this behaviour, whilst also using these tasks to examine the influence of reward, punishment and dopamine on motor learning with genetics (objective 2), pharmacology (objective 3) and stroke patients (objective 4).
Over the initial 18 months, we have found that reward/punishment feedback has substantially differing effects across motor learning paradigms, with explicit awareness and working memory capacity appearing vital. There also appears to be substantial differences between participants in terms of their sensitivity to reward/punishment feedback. Understanding these individual differences in people’s sensitivity to reward and punishment is crucial as it suggests we cannot simply provide a ‘one size fits all’ intervention. Identifying the importance of individual differences is beyond state of the art as nearly all rehabilitation interventions use an identical protocol across all patients. Our work is beginning to suggest that reward/punishment is mainly effective in enabling participants to develop a stronger explicit strategy for the task, thus indicating that such motivational feedback should be only used when an explicit strategy is the planned outcome. We are now collecting participant’s genetic information in order to investigate whether genetic variation can help explain participant’s varying sensitivity to reward and punishment. MotMotLearn is providing the first in-depth account concerning the dissociable impact of reward, punishment and dopamine on independent motor learning systems. Importantly, it is highlighting that we cannot simply apply reward/punishment feedback to every situation with the assumption that it is always beneficial. By defining the behavioural and theoretically boundaries in which reward, punishment and dopamine can have beneficial effects on motor learning, MotMotLearn is creating a roadmap which should enable these concepts to be applied to motor learning across the lifespan; from childhood development, through adulthood, to healthy ageing and rehabilitation in a successful and reliable manner. This not only has the clear societal impact of developing an intervention that enhances motor learning in a manner which can easily be applied in real-world situations, but should also have the economic impact of identifying the situations where reward/punishment feedback should and should not be applied, thus reducing the need for expensive and time consuming trial-and-error clinical research projects.