Visual responsiveness in sensorimotor cortex is increased following amputation and reduced after mirror therapy

Neuroimage Clin. 2019;23:101882. doi: 10.1016/j.nicl.2019.101882. Epub 2019 May 30.


Phantom limb pain (PLP) following amputation, which is experienced by the vast majority of amputees, has been reported to be relieved with daily sessions of mirror therapy. During each session, a mirror is used to view the reflected image of the intact limb moving, providing visual feedback consistent with the movement of the missing/phantom limb. To investigate potential neural correlates of the treatment effect, we measured brain responses in volunteers with unilateral leg amputation using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during a four-week course of mirror therapy. Mirror therapy commenced immediately following baseline scans, which were repeated after approximately two and four week intervals. We focused on responses in the region of sensorimotor cortex corresponding to primary somatosensory and motor representations of the missing leg. At baseline, prior to starting therapy, we found a strong and unexpected response in sensorimotor cortex of amputees to visually presented images of limbs. This response was stronger for images of feet compared to hands and there was no such response in matched controls. Further, this response to visually presented limbs was no longer present at the end of the four week mirror therapy treatment, when perceived phantom limb pain was also reduced. A similar pattern of results was also observed in extrastriate and parietal regions typically responsive to viewing hand actions, but not in regions corresponding to secondary somatosensory cortex. Finally, there was a significant correlation between initial visual responsiveness in sensorimotor cortex and reduction in PLP suggesting a potential marker for predicting efficacy of mirror therapy. Thus, enhanced visual responsiveness in sensorimotor cortex is associated with PLP and modulated over the course of mirror therapy.

Keywords: Amputation; Phantom limb pain; Sensorimotor; Vision; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amputation / adverse effects*
  • Feedback, Sensory / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lower Extremity / physiopathology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neurological Rehabilitation / methods*
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care / methods*
  • Phantom Limb / etiology
  • Phantom Limb / physiopathology*
  • Phantom Limb / rehabilitation*
  • Sensorimotor Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Sensorimotor Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Upper Extremity / physiopathology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*