Front Hum Neurosci 2014 22;8:339. Epub 2014 May 22.
Imaging Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin Austin, TX, USA ; Department of Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin Austin, TX, USA ; Department of Neurobiology, The University of Texas at Austin Austin, TX, USA.
Learning novel skills involves reorganization and optimization of cognitive processing involving a broad network of brain regions. Previous work has shown asymmetric costs of switching to a well-trained task vs. a poorly-trained task, but the neural basis of these differential switch costs is unclear. The current study examined the neural signature of task switching in the context of acquisition of new skill. Human participants alternated randomly between a novel visual task (mirror-reversed word reading) and a highly practiced one (plain word reading), allowing the isolation of task switching and skill set maintenance. Two scan sessions were separated by 2 weeks, with behavioral training on the mirror reading task in between the two sessions. Broad cortical regions, including bilateral prefrontal, parietal, and extrastriate cortices, showed decreased activity associated with learning of the mirror reading skill. In contrast, learning to switch to the novel skill was associated with decreased activity in a focal subcortical region in the dorsal striatum. Switching to the highly practiced task was associated with a non-overlapping set of regions, suggesting substantial differences in the neural substrates of switching as a function of task skill. Searchlight multivariate pattern analysis also revealed that learning was associated with decreased pattern information for mirror vs. plain reading tasks in fronto-parietal regions. Inferior frontal junction and posterior parietal cortex showed a joint effect of univariate activation and pattern information. These results suggest distinct learning mechanisms task performance and executive control as a function of learning.