Motor cortex causally contributes to vocabulary translation following sensorimotor-enriched training

Brian Mathias* (Corresponding Author), Andrea Waibel, Gesa Hartwigsen, Leona Sureth, Manuela Macedonia, Katja M Mayer, Katharina von Kriegstein

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


The role of the motor cortex in perceptual and cognitive functions is highly controversial. Here, we investigated the hypothesis that the motor cortex can be instrumental for translating foreign language vocabulary. Human participants of both sexes were trained on foreign language (L2) words and their native language translations over 4 consecutive days. L2 words were accompanied by complementary gestures (sensorimotor enrichment) or pictures (sensory enrichment). Following training, participants translated the auditorily presented L2 words that they had learned. During translation, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation was applied bilaterally to a site within the primary motor cortex (Brodmann area 4) located in the vicinity of the arm functional compartment. Responses within the stimulated motor region have previously been found to correlate with behavioral benefits of sensorimotor-enriched L2 vocabulary learning. Compared to sham stimulation, effective perturbation by repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation slowed down the translation of sensorimotor-enriched L2 words, but not sensory-enriched L2 words. This finding suggests that sensorimotor-enriched training induced changes in L2 representations within the motor cortex, which in turn facilitated the translation of L2 words. The motor cortex may play a causal role in precipitating sensorimotor-based learning benefits, and may directly aid in remembering the native language translations of foreign language words following sensorimotor-enriched training. These findings support multisensory theories of learning while challenging reactivation-based theories.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Despite the potential for sensorimotor enrichment to serve as a powerful tool for learning in many domains, its underlying brain mechanisms remain largely unexplored. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation and a foreign language (L2) learning paradigm, we found that sensorimotor-enriched training can induce changes in L2 representations within the motor cortex, which in turn causally facilitate the translation of L2 words. The translation of recently acquired L2 words may therefore rely not only on auditory information stored in memory or on modality-independent L2 representations, but also on the sensorimotor context in which the words have been experienced.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8618-8631
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number41
Early online date24 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - 13 Oct 2021

Bibliographical note

This work was supported by German Research Foundation Grant KR 3735/3-1, a Max Planck Research Group Grant to K.v.K, and an Erasmus Mundus Postdoctoral Fellowship in Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience to B.M. B.M. was also supported by the ERC-Consolidator Grant SENSOCOM 647051 to K.v.K.


  • foreign language learning
  • motor cortex
  • multisensory
  • sensorimotor learning
  • TMS


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