Prevailing theories of implicit or unaware learning propose a developmental invariance model, with implicit function maturing early in infancy or childhood despite prolonged improvements in explicit or intentional learning and memory systems across childhood. Neuroimaging studies of adult visuomotor sequence learning have associated fronto-striatal brain regions with implicit learning of spatial sequences. Given evidence of continued development in these brain regions during childhood, we compare implicit sequence learning in adults and 7- to 11-year-old children to examine potential developmental differences in the recruitment of fronto-striatal circuitry during implicit learning. Participants performed a standard serial reaction time task. Stimuli alternately followed a fixed 10-step sequence of locations or were presented in a pseudorandom order of locations. Adults outperformed children, achieving a significantly larger sequence learning effect and showing learning more quickly than children. Age-related differences in activity were observed in the premotor cortex, putamen, hippocampus, inferotemporal cortex, and parietal cortex. We observed differential recruitment of cortical and subcortical motor systems between groups, presumably reflecting age differences in motor response execution. Adults showed greater hippocampal activity for sequence trials, whereas children demonstrated greater signal during random trials. Activity in the right caudate correlated significantly with behavioral measures of implicit learning for both age groups, although adults showed greater signal change than children overall, as would be expected given developmental differences in sequence learning magnitude. These results challenge the idea of developmental invariance in implicit learning and instead support a view of parallel developments in implicit and explicit learning systems.

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