Humans with spinal cord injury (SCI) show deficits in associating motor commands and sensory feedback. Do these deficits affect their ability to adapt movements to new demands? To address this question, we used a robotic exoskeleton to examine learning of a sensorimotor adaptation task during reaching movements by distorting the relationship between hand movement and visual feedback in 22 individuals with chronic incomplete cervical SCI and 22 age-matched control subjects. We found that SCI individuals showed a reduced ability to learn from movement errors compared with control subjects. Sensorimotor areas in anterior and posterior cerebellar lobules contribute to learning of movement errors in intact humans. Structural brain imaging showed that sensorimotor areas in the cerebellum, including lobules I–VI, were reduced in size in SCI compared with control subjects and cerebellar atrophy increased with increasing time post injury. Notably, the degree of spared tissue in the cerebellum was positively correlated with learning rates, indicating participants with lesser atrophy showed higher learning rates. These results suggest that the reduced ability to learn from movement errors during reaching movements in humans with SCI involves abnormalities in the spinocerebellar structures. We argue that this information might help in the rehabilitation of people with SCI.
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