This study examined the trainability of the proprioceptive sense and explored the relationship between proprioception and motor learning. With vision blocked, human learners had to perform goal-directed wrist movements relying solely on proprioceptive/haptic cues to reach several haptically specified targets. One group received additional somatosensory movement error feedback in form of vibro-tactile cues applied to the skin of the forearm. We used a haptic robotic device for the wrist and implemented a 3-day training regimen that required learners to make spatially precise goal-directed wrist reaching movements without vision. We assessed whether training improved the acuity of the wrist joint position sense. In addition, we checked if sensory learning generalized to the motor domain and improved spatial precision of wrist tracking movements that were not trained. The main findings of the study are: First, proprioceptive acuity of the wrist joint position sense improved after training for the group that received the combined proprioceptive/haptic and vibro-tactile feedback (VTF). Second, training had no impact on the spatial accuracy of the untrained tracking task. However, learners who had received VTF significantly reduced their reliance on haptic guidance feedback when performing the untrained motor task. That is, concurrent VTF was highly salient movement feedback and obviated the need for haptic feedback. Third, VTF can be also provided by the limb not involved in the task. Learners who received VTF to the contralateral limb equally benefitted. In conclusion, somatosensory training can significantly enhance proprioceptive acuity within days when learning is coupled with vibro-tactile sensory cues that provide feedback about movement errors. The observable sensory improvements in proprioception facilitates motor learning and such learning may generalize to the sensorimotor control of the untrained motor tasks. The implications of these findings for neurorehabilitation are discussed.
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© 2016 Cuppone et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.