Studies on athletes or neurological patients with motor disorders have shown a close link between motor experience and motor imagery skills. Here we evaluated whether a functional limitation due to a musculoskeletal disorder has an impact on the ability to mentally rehearse the motor patterns of walking, an overlearned and highly automatic behaviour. We assessed the behavioural performance (measured through mental chronometry tasks) and the neural signatures of motor imagery of gait in patients with chronic knee arthrosis and in age-matched, healthy controls. During fMRI, participants observed (i) stationary or (ii) moving videos of a path in a park shown in the first-person perspective: they were asked to imagine themselves (i) standing on or (ii) walking along the path, as if the camera were "their own eyes" (gait imagery (GI) task). In half of the trials, participants performed a dynamic gait imagery (DGI) task by combining foot movements with GI. Behavioural tests revealed a lower degree of isochrony between imagined and performed walking in the patients, indicating impairment in the ability to mentally rehearse gait motor patterns. Moreover, fMRI showed widespread hypoactivation during GI in motor planning (premotor and parietal) brain regions, the brainstem, and the cerebellum. Crucially, the performance of DGI had a modulatory effect on the patients and enhanced activation of the posterior parietal, brainstem, and cerebellar regions that the healthy controls recruited during the GI task. These findings show that functional limitations of peripheral origin may impact on gait motor representations, providing a rationale for cognitive rehabilitation protocols in patients with gait disorders of orthopaedic nature. The DGI task may be a suitable tool in this respect.
Keywords: DGI, Dynamic Gait Imagery; GI, Gait Imagery; Gait; Motor imagery; Orthopaedic patients; fMRI.