Motor learning decline with age is related to differences in the explicit memory system
The ability to adapt one's movements to changes in the environment is fundamental in everyday life, but this ability changes across the lifespan. Although often regarded as an 'implicit' process, recent research has also linked motor adaptation with 'explicit' learning processes. To understand how these processes contribute to differences in motor adaptation with age, we combined a visuomotor learning paradigm with cognitive tasks that measure implicit and explicit processes, and structural brain imaging. In a large population-based cohort from the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (n=322, aged 18-89 years) we first confirmed that the degree of adaptation to an angular perturbation of visual feedback declined with age. There were no associations between adaptation and sensory attenuation, which has been previously hypothesised to contribute to implicit motor learning. However, interactions between age and scores on two independent memory tasks showed that explicit memory performance was a progressively stronger determinant of motor learning with age. Similarly, interactions between age and grey matter volume in the medial temporal lobe, amygdala and hippocampus showed that grey matter volume in these regions became a stronger determinant of adaptation in older adults. The convergent behavioural and structural imaging results suggest that age-related differences in the explicit memory system is a contributor to the decline in motor adaptation in older age. These results may reflect the more general compensatory reliance on cognitive strategies to maintain motor performance with age.