According to a new study, published in the October 19 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, it may be better to learn from one’s mistakes than practice to perfection. This discovery could potentially help improve therapy for people relearning how to walk following stroke or injury. 

For the study, researches at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore, had participants switch from a normal walking pattern to an unusual one and back again, finding that they were better able to relearn the unusual walking pattern each day.

"The standard approach to helping stroke patients relearn walking and other motor skills is to tell them how to move better, and then practice it over and over again," Amy Bastian, PhD, director of motion analysis laboratory at the institute, says. "The results of our study suggest that the most effective approach might be to repeatedly challenge patients with new training situations."

Basing their methods off previous studies, the researchers trained 52 healthy adults to walk on a split-belt treadmill, a device that forces one leg to move at a faster speed than the other. While a control group performed 15 minutes of steady exposure to belts moving at different speeds, a switch group walked on belts that alternated between different and identical speeds. After 24 hours, both groups returned to walk on the belts that moved at different speeds. The study found that those in the switch group had an easier time relearning the unusual walking pattern than those in the control group.

Furthermore, a third group of participants was instructed to walk on a split-belt treadmill that alternated between 15 minutes with the right leg moving faster and 15 minutes with the left leg moving faster. According to the researchers, the third group, too, was able to relearn the initial walking pattern slightly faster than those who did only the single pattern.

Source: Journal of Neuroscience