"To control, precisely, each muscle needed for the task would be very hard. What we have proven is that the central nervous system, when it programs the movement, makes use of these modules," Bizzi says. "Instead of activating simultaneously 50 muscles for a single action, you will combine a few synergies to achieve that goal."
In the 2009 study, and again in the new paper, the researchers showed that synergies in the affected arms of patients who suffered mild strokes in the cortex are very similar to those seen in their unaffected arms even though the muscle activation patterns are different. This shows that muscle synergies are structured within the spinal cord, and that cortical stroke alters the ability of the brain to activate these synergies in the appropriate combinations.
However, the new study found a much different pattern in patients who suffered more severe strokes. In those patients, synergies in the affected arm merged to form a smaller number of larger synergies. And in a third group of patients, who had suffered their stroke many years earlier, the muscle synergies of the affected arm split into fragments of the synergies seen in the unaffected arm.
This phenomenon, known as fractionation, does not restore the synergies to what they would have looked like before the stroke. "These fractionations appear to be something totally new," says Vincent Cheung, a research scientist at the McGovern Institute and lead author of the new PNAS paper. "The conjecture would be that these fragments could be a way that the nervous system tries to adapt to the injury, but we have to do further studies to confirm that."
Toward better rehabilitation
The researchers believe that these patterns of synergies, which are determined by both the severity of the deficit and the time since the stroke occurred, could be used as markers to more fully describe indi
|Contact: Sarah McDonnell|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology