BACKGROUND: Brain activity has been shown to undergo cortical and sub-cortical functional reorganisation over the course of gait rehabilitation in patients suffering from a spinal cord injury or a stroke. These changes however, have not been completely elucidated by neuroimaging to date, mainly due to the scarcity of long-term, follow-up investigations. The magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) compatible stepper MARCOS was specifically developed to enable the investigation of the supraspinal adaptations in paretic patients undergoing gait-rehabilitation in a controlled and repeatable manner. In view of future clinical research, the present study aims at examining the test-retest reliability of functional MRI (fMRI) experiments using MARCOS.
METHODS: The effect of repeated active and passive stepping movements on brain activity was investigated in 16 healthy participants from fMRI data collected in two separate imaging sessions six weeks apart. Root mean square errors (RMSE) were calculated for the metrics of motor performance. Regional overlap of brain activation between sessions, as well as an intra-class correlation coefficient (ICC) was computed from the single-subject and group activation maps for five regions of interest (ROI).
RESULTS: Data from eight participants had to be excluded due to excessive head motion. Reliability of motor performance was higher during passive than active movements, as seen in 4.5- to 13-fold lower RMSE for passive movements. In contrast, ICC ranged from 0.48 to 0.72 during passive movements and from 0.77 to 0.85 during active movements. Regional overlap of activations was also higher during active than during passive movements.
CONCLUSION: These findings imply that an increased variability of motor performance during active movements of healthy participants may be associated with a stable neuronal activation pattern across repeated measurements. In contrast, a stable motor performance during passive movements may be accompanied by a confined reliability of brain activation across repeated measurements.