Reorganization in the sensorimotor cortex accompanied by increased excitability and enlarged body representations is a consequence of spinal cord injury (SCI). Robotic-assisted bodyweight supported treadmill training (BWSTT) was hypothesized to induce reorganization and improve walking function.
To assess whether BWSTT with hybrid assistive limb® (HAL®) exoskeleton affects cortical excitability in the primary somatosensory cortex (S1) in SCI patients, as measured by paired-pulse somatosensory evoked potentials (ppSEP) stimulated above the level of injury.
Eleven SCI patients took part in HAL® assisted BWSTT for 3 months. PpSEP were conducted before and after this training period, where the amplitude ratios (SEP amplitude following double pulses - SEP amplitude following single pulses) were assessed and compared to eleven healthy control subjects. To assess improvement in walking function, we used the 10-m walk test, timed-up-and-go test, the 6-min walk test, and the lower extremity motor score.
PpSEPs were significantly increased in SCI patients as compared to controls at baseline. Following training, ppSEPs were increased from baseline and no longer significantly differed from controls. Walking parameters also showed significant improvements, yet there was no significant correlation between ppSEP measures and walking parameters.
The findings suggest that robotic-assisted BWSTT with HAL® in SCI patients is capable of inducing cortical plasticity following highly repetitive, active locomotive use of paretic legs. While there was no significant correlation of excitability with walking parameters, brain areas other than S1 might reflect improvement of walking functions. EEG and neuroimaging studies may provide further information about supraspinal plastic processes and foci in SCI rehabilitation.