Motor Control and Learning Research Lab


The broad purpose of the Motor Control and Learning Research Lab is to better understand principles of motor control and motor learning and how the brain contributes to effective movement, with a long-range goal to impact remediation, rehabilitation, and therapeutic practices:

  • One focus is the contribution of the basal ganglia and cerebellum to the learning, planning, and online control of tasks such as rapid aiming and reach-to-grasp.
  • A second related focus is the learning and retention of internally generated versus visually triggered movements in people with Parkinson’s disease.
  • We are also examining stability of gait across the lifespan and in people with Parkinson’s disease, and we are initiating a clinical gait assessment program.
  • Another focus is collaborative work in which sequential performance and bimanual control are being examined in children with developmental coordination disorder.


Motor learning in people with Parkinson’s disease

The purpose of this project is to examine learning and retention after 3 weeks of practicing four fundamentally different motor tasks. Funding: NIH Grant NS 43733-02.

The task is to let go of the ball at the top of the ramp, make contact with the blue button and pick up the ball in the green target area. Subjects practiced this task at home and were tested weekly in the lab for performance and retention. Changes in performance are based on number of successful interceptions and kinematic measurements using a dual Northern Digital Optotrak 3020 Camera System.

Exercise effects in cognitive processing in older adults

This study was designed to examine the effect of regular exercise on speed of information processing and specific types of cognitive processing in older adults. The purpose is to test the selective improvement hypothesis (Kramer et al, 1999), which states that exercise in older adults positively impacts executive cognitive processes but does so in a task-specific manner, specifically benefiting those processes mediated by frontal lobe functioning. We found partial support for this hypothesis; we also found that cognitive processing was not related to fitness level. Funding: Iowa State University Research Grant.

One of the tasks in this study is reaction time that varies in complexity. Another task that is known to require executive processes of the frontal lobe is the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task, but is not speeded. This task was not affected by exercise or fitness level.

Sequential rapid aiming in people with Parkinson’s disease

The purpose of this study was to examine the degree to which people with Parkinson’s disease plan a movement sequence as a group of movements, or whether the overall approach is more segmented. Changes in performance were measured using the Optotrak system. The goal of the task pictured is to move as quickly as possible to a series of targets. The results indicate that people with Parkinson’s disease do not use feedforward anticipation in a manner similar to young or older neurologically healthy adults.

Attention and gait in older adults

The purpose of this project is to examine changes in stability in older adults while engaging in cognitive processing. One primary measure of gait that we are utilizing is gait harmonics.