Background: The aim was to explore the thalamo-striato-cortical theory of central fatigue in multiple sclerosis (MS) patients with self-reported fatigue. If the theory correctly predicted fatigue based on disruptions of the thalamo-striato-cortical network, we expected altered brain activation in this network in MS participants while performing a complex cognitive task that challenged fatigue.
Methods: MS participants with self-reported fatigue were examined by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during the performance of a complex working memory task. In this task, cognitive effort was challenged by a parametric design, which modeled the cerebral responses at increasing cognitive demands. In order to explore the theory of central fatigue in MS we also analyzed the cerebral responses by adding perceived fatigue scores as covariates in the analysis and by calculating the functional connectivity between regions in the thalamo-striatocortical network. The main findings were that MS participants elicited altered brain responses in the thalamo-striato-cortical network, and that brain activation in the left posterior parietal cortex and the right substantia nigra was positively correlated to perceived fatigue ratings. MS participants had stronger cortical-to-cortical and subcortical-to-subcortical connections, whereas they had weaker cortical-to-subcortical connections.
Conclusions: The findings of the present study indicate that the thalamo-striato-cortical network is involved in the pathophysiology of fatigue in MS, and provide support for the theory of central fatigue. However, due to the limited number of participants and the somewhat heterogeneous sample of MS participants, these results have to be regarded as tentative, though they might serve as a basis for future studies.
Keywords: Basal ganglia; functional magnetic resonance imaging; parietal cortex; substantia nigra; working memory.