It is well documented that both cognitive and motor learning abilities decline with normative aging. Given that cognitive processes such as working memory are engaged during the early stages of motor learning [Anguera, J., Reuter-Lorenz, P., Willingham, D., & Seidler, R. Contributions of spatial working memory to visuomotor learning. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22(9), 1917–1930, 2010], age-related declines in motor learning may be due in part to reductions in cognitive ability. The present study examined whether age-related declines in spatial working memory (SWM) contribute to deficits in visuomotor adaptation. Young and older adult participants performed a visuomotor adaptation task that involved adapting manual aiming movements to a 30° rotation of the visual feedback display as well as an SWM task in an fMRI scanner. Young adults showed a steeper learning curve than older adults during the early adaptation period. The rate of early adaptation was correlated with SWM performance for the young, but not older, adults. Both groups showed similar brain activation patterns for the SWM task, including engagement of the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and bilateral inferior parietal lobules. However, when the SWM activation was used as a limiting mask, younger adults showed neural activation that overlapped with the early adaptation period, whereas older adults did not. A partial correlation controlling for age revealed that the rate of early adaptation correlated with the amount of activation at the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. These findings suggest that a failure to effectively engage SWM processes during learning contributes to age-related deficits in visuomotor adaptation.

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