The neurochemical basis of the contextual interference effect

Sima Chalavi, Lisa Pauwels, Kirstin Friederike Heise, Hamed Zivariadab, Celine Maes, Nicolaas A.J. Puts, Richard A.E. Edden, Stephan P. Swinnen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Efficient practice organization maximizes learning outcome. Although randomization of practice as compared to blocked practice damages training performance, it boosts retention performance, an effect called contextual interference. Motor learning modulates the GABAergic (gamma-aminobutyric acid) system within the sensorimotor cortex (SM); however, it is unclear whether different practice regimes differentially modulate this system and whether this is impacted by aging. Young and older participants were trained on 3 variations of a visuomotor task over 3 days, following either blocked or random practice schedule and retested 6 days later. Using magnetic resonance spectroscopy, SM and occipital cortex GABA+ levels were measured before and after training during the first and last training days. We found that (1) behavioral data confirmed the contextual interference effects, (2) within-day occipital cortex GABA+ levels decreased in random and increased in blocked group. This effect was more pronounced in older adults; and (3) baseline SM GABA+ levels predicted initial performance. These findings indicate a differential modulation of GABA levels across practice groups that is amplified by aging.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)85-96
Number of pages12
JournalNeurobiology of aging
StatePublished - Jun 2018


  • Aging
  • Contextual interference
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
  • Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS)
  • Skill learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Aging
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Developmental Biology
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology


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