Priming the motor system enhances the effects of upper limb therapy in chronic stroke

Cathy M Stinear, Peter Alan Barber, James Peter Coxon, Melanie Fleming, Winston D Byblow

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After stroke, the function of primary motor cortex (M1) between the hemispheres may become unbalanced. Techniques that promote a re-balancing of M1 excitability may prime the brain to be more responsive to rehabilitation therapies and lead to improved functional outcomes. The present study examined the effects of Active-Passive Bilateral Therapy (APBT), a putative movement-based priming strategy designed to reduce intracortical inhibition and increase excitability within the ipsilesional M1. Thirty-two patients with upper limb weakness at least 6 months after stroke were randomized to a 1-month intervention of self-directed motor practice with their affected upper limb (control group) or to APBT for 10-15 min prior to the same motor practice (APBT group). A blinded clinical rater assessed upper limb function at baseline, and immediately and 1 month after the intervention. Transcranial magnetic stimulation was used to assess M1 excitability. Immediately after the intervention, motor function of the affected upper limb improved in both groups (P < 0.005). One month after the intervention, the APBT group had better upper limb motor function than control patients (P < 0.05). The APBT group had increased ipsilesional M1 excitability (P < 0.025), increased transcallosal inhibition from ipsilesional to contralesional M1 (P < 0.01) and increased intracortical inhibition within contralesional M1 (P < 0.005). None of these changes were found in the control group. APBT produced sustained improvements in upper limb motor function in chronic stroke patients and induced specific and sustained changes in motor cortex inhibitory function. We speculate that APBT may have facilitated plastic reorganization in the brain in response to motor therapy. The utility of APBT as an adjuvant to physical therapy warrants further consideration.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1381-1390
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2008

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