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Nerve stimulation in the arm helps people to learn complex movements

07 December 2017

​Using electronic stimuli to stimulate the nerves in the arm can help people learn to carry out complex movements. In addition, their brains appear to be more active during the learning process, boosting their achievement even further. This is an important discovery in terms of helping people to relearn movement after a neurological disorder. This has been revealed by research carried out by human movement scientist Menno Veldman from the University Medical Center Groningen. He will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 13 December. 

Ageing and neurological disorders damage people’s quality of movement and impedes their ability to learn new skills. It has now been discovered that low-intensity stimulation of nerves in the arm activates the brain’s capacity to adapt and generates greater precision in movement. This type of nerve stimulation not only produces an effect in healthy adults, but also in patients suffering the effects of conditions such as stroke or dystonia. To capitalise on the effect of nerve stimulation, it is important to know exactly how the process improves quality of movement. 

For his research, Menno Veldman designed a model that could predict precisely which areas and connections in the brain react while nerves are being stimulated. He examined whether 20 minutes of nerve stimulation would improve the way someone performed a complex movement, and how long the effect would last after the stimulation. He tested 100 healthy young adults. Veldman also tried to establish whether there is a link between learning a complex movement and the level of activity and connectivity in the brain. 

His results show that this type of nerve stimulation does indeed enable people to learn a complex movement better. The research revealed that nerve stimulation increases brain activity and brain connectivity. Extra stimuli were observed in three specific areas of the brain: the primary motor cortex, the sensory cortex and the parietal lobe. This heightened brain activity shows a correlation with improved performance of a complex task. In addition, the effect can last for up to seven days after the stimulation. The effect of nerve stimulation was not only evident in the arm being stimulated, but also improved movement in the hand of the arm not being stimulated. 

According to Menno Veldman, his research shows that nerve stimulation is a way to help people relearn movement. ‘It can be used to counter the negative effects of ageing and neurological disorders. Nerve stimulation enables us to help people improve the quality of their movement, and the quality of their life. It contributes to the process of healthy ageing.’

Curriculum Vitae

After attending secondary school in Heerenveen, M.P. Veldman (1990, Heerenveen) studied Human Movement Sciences at the University of Groningen. He conducted his research in the Center for Human Movement Sciences and the UMCG’s SHARE research institute. His thesis is entitled: ‘Somatosensory electrical stimulation produces motor learning and synaptic plasticity’. After being awarded a PhD, he will work as a postdoc researcher at KU Leuven.​