Domain-specific working memory, but not dopamine-related genetic variability, shapes reward-based motor learning: Mechanisms of reward-based motor learning

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


  • Olivier Codol
  • Elizabeth Oxley
  • Madison Taylor
  • Elizabeth Hamshere
  • Shadiq Joseph
  • Laura Huffer


The addition of rewarding feedback to motor learning tasks has been shown to increase the retention of learning, spurring interest in its possible utility for rehabilitation. However, motor tasks employing rewarding feedback have repeatedly been shown to lead to great inter-individual variability in performance. Understanding the causes of such variability is vital for maximising the potential benefits of reward-based motor learning. Thus, using a large human cohort of both sexes (n=241), we examined whether spatial (SWM), verbal (VWM) and mental rotation (RWM) working memory capacity and dopamine-related genetic profiles were associated with performance in two reward-based motor tasks. The first task assessed participant’s ability to follow a slowly shifting reward region based on hit/miss (binary) feedback. The second task investigated participant’s capacity to preserve performance with binary feedback after adapting to the rotation with full visual feedback. Our results demonstrate that higher SWM is associated with greater success and an enhanced capacity to reproduce a successful motor action, measured as change in reach angle following reward. In contrast, higher RWM was predictive of an increased propensity to express an explicit strategy when required to make large reach angle adjustments. Therefore, SWM and RWM were reliable but dissociable predictors of success during reward-based motor learning. Change in reach direction following failure was also a strong predictor of success rate, although we observed no consistent relationship with working memory. Surprisingly, no dopamine-related genotypes predicted performance. Therefore, working memory capacity plays a pivotal role in determining individual ability in reward-based motor learning.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9383-9396
JournalThe Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number47
Publication statusPublished - 20 Nov 2019