Previous functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) studies indicated that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is involved in the maintenance of the postural balance after external perturbations. So far, no studies have been conducted to investigate the PFC hemodynamic response to virtual reality (VR) tasks that could be adopted in the field of functional neurorehabilitation. The aim of this fNIRS study was to assess PFC oxygenation response during an incremental and a control swing balance task (ISBT and CSBT, respectively) in a semi-immersive VR environment driven by a depth-sensing camera. It was hypothesized that: i) the PFC would be bilaterally activated in response to the increase of the ISBT difficulty, as this cortical region is involved in the allocation of attentional resources to maintain postural control; and ii) the PFC activation would be greater in the right than in the left hemisphere considering its dominance for visual control of body balance. To verify these hypotheses, 16 healthy male subjects were requested to stand barefoot while watching a 3 dimensional virtual representation of themselves projected onto a screen. They were asked to maintain their equilibrium on a virtual blue swing board susceptible to external destabilizing perturbations (i.e., randomizing the forward-backward direction of the impressed pulse force) during a 3-min ISBT (performed at four levels of difficulty) or during a 3-min CSBT (performed constantly at the lowest level of difficulty of the ISBT). The center of mass (COM), at each frame, was calculated and projected on the floor. When the subjects were unable to maintain the COM over the board, this became red (error). After each error, the time required to bring back the COM on the board was calculated (returning time). An eight-channel continuous wave fNIRS system was employed for measuring oxygenation changes (oxygenated-hemoglobin, O2Hb; deoxygenated-hemoglobin, HHb) related to the PFC activation (Brodmann Areas 10, 11 and 46). The results have indicated that the errors increased between the first and the second level of difficulty of the ISBT, then decreased and remained constant; the returning time progressively increased during the first three levels of difficulty and then remained constant. During the CSBT, the errors and the returning time did not change. In the ISBT, the increase of the first three levels of difficulty was accompanied by a progressive increase in PFC O2Hb and a less consistent decrease in HHb. A tendency to plateau was observable for PFC O2Hb and HHb changes in the fourth level of difficulty of the ISBT, which could be partly explained by a learning effect. A right hemispheric lateralization was not found. A lower amplitude of increase in O2Hb and decrease in HHb was found in the PFC in response to the CSBT with respect to the ISBT. This study has demonstrated that the oxygenation increased over the PFC while performing an ISBT in a semi-immersive VR environment. These data reinforce the involvement of the PFC in attention-demanding balance tasks. Considering the adaptability of this virtual balance task to specific neurological disorders, the absence of motion sensing devices, and the motivating/safe semi-immersive VR environment, the ISBT adopted in this study could be considered valuable for diagnostic testing and for assessing the effectiveness of functional neurorehabilitation.
Keywords: 3 dimensional; 3D; BAs; Brodmann Areas; COM; COP; CSBT; Cortical oxygenation; EEG; Functional near-infrared spectroscopy; HHb; HR; ICBM; ISBT; International Consortium for Brain Mapping; LI; O(2)Hb; PFC; PI; Prefrontal cortex; SBT; STAI; State-Trait Anxiety Inventory; Swing balance task; VR; Virtual reality; center of mass; center of pressure; control swing balance task; deoxygenated hemoglobin; electroencephalography; fMRI; fNIRS; functional magnetic resonance; functional near infrared spectroscopy; heart rate; incremental swing balance task; laterality index; oxygenated hemoglobin; postural instability; prefrontal cortex; swing balance task; virtual reality.
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