COMPARATIVE STUDY
JOURNAL ARTICLE
RANDOMIZED CONTROLLED TRIAL

Treadmill exercise activates subcortical neural networks and improves walking after stroke: a randomized controlled trial

Andreas R Luft, Richard F Macko, Larry W Forrester, Federico Villagra, Fred Ivey, John D Sorkin, Jill Whitall, Sandy McCombe-Waller, Leslie Katzel, Andrew P Goldberg, Daniel F Hanley
Stroke; a Journal of Cerebral Circulation 2008, 39 (12): 3341-50
18757284

BACKGROUND AND PURPOSE: Stroke often impairs gait thereby reducing mobility and fitness and promoting chronic disability. Gait is a complex sensorimotor function controlled by integrated cortical, subcortical, and spinal networks. The mechanisms of gait recovery after stroke are not well understood. This study examines the hypothesis that progressive task-repetitive treadmill exercise (T-EX) improves fitness and gait function in subjects with chronic hemiparetic stroke by inducing adaptations in the brain (plasticity).

METHODS: A randomized controlled trial determined the effects of 6-month T-EX (n=37) versus comparable duration stretching (CON, n=34) on walking, aerobic fitness and in a subset (n=15/17) on brain activation measured by functional MRI.

RESULTS: T-EX significantly improved treadmill-walking velocity by 51% and cardiovascular fitness by 18% (11% and -3% for CON, respectively; P<0.05). T-EX but not CON affected brain activation during paretic, but not during nonparetic limb movement, showing 72% increased activation in posterior cerebellar lobe and 18% in midbrain (P<0.005). Exercise-mediated improvements in walking velocity correlated with increased activation in cerebellum and midbrain.

CONCLUSIONS: T-EX improves walking, fitness and recruits cerebellum-midbrain circuits, likely reflecting neural network plasticity. This neural recruitment is associated with better walking. These findings demonstrate the effectiveness of T-EX rehabilitation in promoting gait recovery of stroke survivors with long-term mobility impairment and provide evidence of neuroplastic mechanisms that could lead to further refinements in these paradigms to improve functional outcomes.

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