The simple act of picking up a pencil requires the coordination of dozens of muscles: The eyes and head must turn toward the object as the hand reaches forward and the fingers grasp it. To make this job more manageable, the brain's motor cortex has implemented a system of shortcuts. Instead of controlling each muscle independently, the cortex is believed to activate muscles in groups, known as "muscle synergies." These synergies can be combined in different ways to achieve a wide range of movements.
A new study from MIT, Harvard Medical School and the San Camilio Hospital in Venice finds that after a stroke, these muscle synergies are activated in altered ways. Furthermore, those disruptions follow distinct patterns depending on the severity of the stroke and the amount of time that has passed since the stroke.
The findings, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could lead to improved rehabilitation for stroke patients, as well as a better understanding of how the motor cortex coordinates movements, say Emilio Bizzi, an Institute Professor at MIT and senior author of the paper.
"The cortex is responsible for motor learning and for controlling movement, so we want to understand what's going on there," says Bizzi, who is a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. "How does the cortex translate an idea to move into a series of commands to accomplish a task?"