Their study is the first to demonstrate that locomotor training can promote activation in the parts of the brain involved in walking in spinal-cord injury patients, said lead author Dr. Patricia Winchester, chairwoman of physical therapy at UT Southwestern Allied Health Sciences School. The results suggest that rehabilitation strategies could be designed “based in part upon whether or not they engage the critical areas of the brain necessary for walking,” said Dr. Winchester.

Additionally, the findings suggest that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), used by the researchers to measure the activation of these brain areas, “may be useful in predicting which individuals will benefit from a particular intervention” after spinal-cord injury, Dr. Winchester said.

The study followed four spinal-cord injury patients with varying degrees of paralysis. All underwent rehabilitation therapy using a computerized treadmill called the Lokomat Driven Gait Orthosis. The study participants were assessed before and after completion of the treadmill training with fMRI. Pictures of blood flow in the brain during body movement were compared to fMRI images taken when the patients were at rest.

After training, those patients who showed the most progress in completing a simple task – flexing their ankles – showed increased activity in the portion of their brains called the cerebellum while undergoing fMRI. However, only those patients who showed a “substantial” change in the cerebellum during the task improved their ability to walk. “The study suggests that the cerebellum plays an important role in recovery of walking,” said Dr. Winchester.; Source: UT Southwestern Medical Center