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From tennis to daily life - how your brain improves


It takes a surprisingly small cluster of brain cells deep within your cerebellum to learn how to serve a tennis ball or line up a hockey shot according to researchers from McGill University.

In case you needed a reminder about just how amazing the human brain can be, new research shows that it only takes a small group of brain cells deep within a part of your brain called the cerebellum to learn how to serve a tennis ball or line up a hockey shot.
Researchers at McGill University have discovered that to learn new motor skills (movements), neurons within your cerebellum engage in very precise calculations to quickly compare expected and actual feedback from your senses. They then readjust and change the strength of connections between other neurons quickly to form new patterns in your brain so you can complete the tennis serve. In moments, your brain is able to combine what it expects with what is actually happening.
"We've known for some time that the cerebellum is the part of the brain that takes in sensory information and then causes us to move or react in appropriate ways," says Cullen. "What we didn't know until now is that single neurons in our brain manage to dynamically track the difference between what the brain expects to take in from the senses and the information it is actually receiving during motor learning. Our research shows that this calculated difference (i.e., "sensory prediction error" signal) is used to rapidly change the patterns and connections between neurons in order to learn new motor skills."
When you are learning a new motor skill, your brain will make an estimate about the expected sensory inflow that it should get from your sensory system, for example your brain may be expecting the nerves in your hands and arms to communicate their position as you swing your arm. Your cerebellum then takes in this prediction to compare the differences between what your brain expected you to do and what you actually did. With this constant re-programming and adjustment, your brain can learn how to effectively server the ball in tennis for example.
This system is active in everyone's brains, however elite athletes are not only better at coordinating their movements generally, their brains are also better at making these kinds of rapid predictions and readjustments compared to the 'average' person.
Another great example of just how precise our brains can be in this area is gymnastics. "A gymnast doing a back flip on a balance beam depends on this ability to precisely compute the mismatch between where they expect to land and where they actually find themselves in order to land squarely on the beam. But the research is equally relevant to stroke and multiple sclerosis patients and to the clinicians who treat them," says Cullen.
So, as you read this, remember to thank your brain for the truly amazing things it allows us all to do each day!
Source: Jessica X Brooks, Jerome Carriot, Kathleen E Cullen. Learning to expect the unexpected: rapid updating in primate cerebellum during voluntary self-motion. Nature Neuroscience, 2015; DOI:10.1038/nn.4077