Objective: Neuroimaging studies have suggested an evolution of the brain activation pattern in the course of motor recovery after stroke. Initially poor motor performance is correlated with an recruitment of the uninjured hemisphere that continuously vanished until a nearly normal (contralateral) activation pattern is achieved and motor performance is good. Here we were interested in the early brain activation pattern in patients who showed a good and rapid recovery after stroke.
Methods: Ten patients with first-ever ischemic stroke affecting motor areas had to perform self-paced simple or more complex movements with the affected or the unaffected hand during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The location and number of activated voxels above threshold were determined. To study possible changes in the cortical motor output map the amplitude of the motor evoked potentials (MEP) and the extent of the excitable area were determined using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
Results: The pattern of activation observed with movements of the affected and the unaffected hand was similar. In the simple motor task significant (P<0.05) increases were found in the primary motor cortex ipsilateral to the movement, the supplementary motor area and the cerebellar hemisphere contralateral to the movement during performance with the affected hand compared to movements with the unaffected hand. When comparing simple with more complex movements performed with either the affected or the unaffected hand, a further tendency to increased activation in motor areas was observed. The amplitude of MEPs obtained from the affected hemisphere was smaller and the extent of cortical output maps was decreased compared to the unaffected hemisphere; but none of the patients showed MEPs at the affected hand when the ipsilateral unaffected motor cortex was stimulated.
Conclusions: Despite a rapid and nearly complete motor recovery the brain activation pattern was associated with increased activity in (bilateral) motor areas as revealed with fMRI. TMS revealed impaired motor output properties, but failed to demonstrate ipsilateral motor pathways. Successful recovery in our patients may therefore rely on the increased bilateral activation of existing motor networks spared by the injury.