Motor imagery (MI) is defined as mental execution without any actual movement. While healthy adults usually show temporal equivalence, i.e., isochrony, between the mental simulation of an action and its actual performance, neurological disorders are associated with anisochrony. Unlike in patients with stroke and Parkinson disease, only a few studies have investigated differences of MI ability in multiple sclerosis (MS). However, the relationship among disease severity, anisochrony and brain activation patterns during MI has not been investigated yet. Here, we propose to investigate MI in MS patients using fMRI during a behavioral task executed with dominant/non-dominant hand and to evaluate whether anisochrony is associated with disease severity. Thirty-seven right-handed MS patients, 17 with clinically isolated syndrome (CIS) suggestive of MS and 20 with relapsing-remitting MS (RR-MS) and 20 right-handed healthy controls (HC) underwent fMRI during a motor task consisting in the actual or imaged movement of squeezing a foam ball with the dominant and non-dominant hand. The same tasks were performed outside the MRI room to record the number of actual and imagined ball squeezes, and calculate an Index of performance (IP) based on the ratio between actual and imagined movements. IP showed that a progressive loss of ability in simulating actions (i.e., anisochrony) more pronounced for non-dominant hand, was found as function of the disease course. Moreover, anisochrony was associated with activation of occipito-parieto-frontal areas that were more extensive at the early stages of the disease, probably in order to counteract the changes due to MS. However, the neural engagement of compensatory brain areas becomes more difficult with more challenging tasks, i.e., dominant vs. non-dominant hand, with a consequent deficit in behavioral performance. These results show a strict association between MI performance and disease severity, suggesting that, at early stages of the disease, anisochrony in MI could be considered as surrogate behavioral marker of MS severity.
Keywords: disease marker; disease severity; fMRI; isochrony; motor imagery; multiple sclerosis.