The simple act of picking up a pencil requires the coordination of dozens of muscles: The eyes and head must turn toward the object as the hand reaches forward and the fingers grasp it. To make this job more manageable, the brain's motor cortex has implemented a system of shortcuts. Instead of controlling each muscle independently, the cortex is believed to activate muscles in groups, known as "muscle synergies." These synergies can be combined in different ways to achieve a wide range of movements.
A new study from MIT, Harvard Medical School and the San Camillo Hospital in Venice finds that after a stroke, these muscle synergies are activated in altered ways. Furthermore, those disruptions follow specific patterns depending on the severity of the stroke and the amount of time that has passed since the stroke.
The findings, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could lead to improved rehabilitation for stroke patients, as well as a better understanding of how the motor cortex coordinates movements, says Emilio Bizzi, an Institute Professor at MIT and senior author of the paper.
"The cortex is responsible for motor learning and for controlling movement, so we want to understand what's going on there," says Bizzi, who is a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. "How does the cortex translate an idea to move into a series of commands to accomplish a task?"
One way to explore motor cortical functions is to study how motor patterns are disrupted in stroke patients who suffered damage to the motor areas.
In 2009, Bizzi and his colleagues first identified muscle synergies in the arms of people who had suffered mild strokes by measuring electrical activity in each muscle as the patients moved. Then, by utilizing a specially designed factorization algorithm, the researchers identified characteristic muscle synergies in both the stroke-affected and unaffected arms.
"To control, precisely, each muscle needed for the task would be very hard. What we have proven is that the central nervous system, when it programs the movement, makes use of these modules," Bizzi says. "Instead of activating simultaneously 50 muscles for a single action, you will combine a few synergies to achieve that goal."
In the 2009 study, and again in the new paper, the researchers showed that synergies in the affected arms of patients who suffered mild strokes in the cortex are very similar to those seen in their unaffected arms even though the muscle activation patterns are different. This shows that muscle synergies are structured within the spinal cord, and that cortical stroke alters the ability of the brain to activate these synergies in the appropriate combinations.
However, the new study found a much different pattern in patients who suffered more severe strokes. In those patients, synergies in the affected arm merged to form a smaller number of larger synergies. And in a third group of patients, who had suffered their stroke many years earlier, the muscle synergies of the affected arm split into fragments of the synergies seen in the unaffected arm.