Previous studies have shown that persons with Parkinsons disease (pwPD) share specific deficits in learning new sequential movements, but the neural substrates of this impairment remain unclear. In addition, the degree to which striatal dopaminergic denervation in PD affects the cortico-striato-cerebellar motor learning network remains unknown. We aimed to answer these questions using fMRI in 16 pwPD and 16 healthy age-matched control subjects while they performed an implicit motor sequence learning task. While learning was absent in both pwPD and controls assessed with reaction time differences between sequential and random trials, larger error-rates during the latter suggest that at least some of the complex sequence was encoded. Moreover, we found that while healthy controls could improve general task performance indexed by decreased reaction times across both sequence and random blocks, pwPD could not, suggesting disease-specific deficits in learning of stimulus-response associations. Using fMRI, we found that this effect in pwPD was correlated with decreased activity in the hippocampus over time. Importantly, activity in the substantia nigra (SN) and adjacent bilateral midbrain was specifically increased during sequence learning in pwPD compared to healthy controls, and significantly correlated with sequence-specific learning deficits. As increased SN activity was also associated (on trend) with higher doses of dopaminergic medication as well as disease duration, the results suggest that learning deficits in PD are associated with disease progression, indexing an increased drive to recruit dopaminergic neurons in the SN, however unsuccessfully. Finally, we found no differences between pwPD and controls in task modulation of the cortico-striato-cerebellar network. Notably, in both groups Bayesian model selection revealed cortico-cerebellar connections modulated by the task, suggesting that despite behavioral and activation differences, the same cortico-cerebellar circuitry is recruited for implementing the motor task.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience