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Neuromotor Noise Limits Motor Performance, But Not Motor Adaptation, in Children


Children do not typically appear to move with the same skill and dexterity as adults, although they can still improve their motor performance in specific tasks with practice. One possible explanation is that their motor performance is limited by an inherently higher level of movement variability, but that their motor adaptive ability is robust to this variability. To test this hypothesis, we examined motor adaptation of 43 children (ages 6-17) and 12 adults as they reached while holding the tip of a lightweight robot. The robot applied either a predictable, velocity-dependent field (the "mean field") or a similar field that incorporated stochastic variation (the "noise field"), thereby further enhancing the variability of the subjects' movements. We found that children exhibited greater initial trial-to-trial variability in their unperturbed movements but were still able to adapt comparably to adults in both the mean and noise fields. Furthermore, the youngest children (ages 6-8) were able to reduce their variability with practice to levels comparable to the remaining children groups although not as low as adults. These results indicate that children as young as age 6 possess adult-like neural systems for motor adaptation and internal model formation that allow them to adapt to novel dynamic environments as well as adults on average despite increased neuromotor or environmental noise. Performance after adaptation is still more variable than adults, however, indicating that movement inconsistency, not motor adaptation inability, ultimately limits motor performance by children and may thus account for their appearance of incoordination and more frequent motor accidents (e.g., spilling, tripping). The results of this study also suggest that movement variability in young children may arise from two sources--a relatively constant, intrinsic source related to fundamental physiological constraints of the developing motor system and a more rapidly modifiable source that is modulated depending on the current motor context.

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