Natalie Mrachacz-Kersting 1 , Ning Jiang 2 , Andrew James Thomas Stevenson 3 , Imran Khan Niazi 3 , Vladimir Kostic 4 , Aleksandra Pavlovic 4 , Sasa Radovanovic 4 , Milica Djuric-Jovicic 5 , Federica Agosta 6 , Kim Dremstrup 3 , Dario Farina 2
Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) have the potential to improve functionality in chronic stoke patients when applied over a large number of sessions. Here we evaluated the effect and the underlying mechanisms of three BCI training sessions in a double-blind sham-controlled design. The applied BCI is based on Hebbian principles of associativity that hypothesize that neural assemblies activated in a correlated manner will strengthen synaptic connections. Twenty-two chronic stroke patients were divided into two training groups. Movement-related cortical potentials (MRCPs) were detected by electroencephalography during repetitions of foot dorsiflexion. Detection triggered a single electrical stimulation of the common peroneal nerve timed so that the resulting afferent volley arrived at the peak negative phase of the MRCP (BCIassociative group) or randomly (BCInonassociative group). Fugl-Meyer motor assessment (FM), 10-m walking speed, foot and hand tapping frequency, diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) data, and the excitability of the corticospinal tract to the target muscle [tibialis anterior (TA)] were quantified. The TA motor evoked potential (MEP) increased significantly after the BCIassociative intervention, but not for the BCInonassociative group. FM scores (0.8 ± 0.46 point difference, P = 0.01), foot (but not finger) tapping frequency, and 10-m walking speed improved significantly for the BCIassociative group, indicating clinically relevant improvements. Corticospinal tract integrity on DTI did not correlate with clinical or physiological changes. For the BCI as applied here, the precise coupling between the brain command and the afferent signal was imperative for the behavioral, clinical, and neurophysiological changes reported. This association may become the driving principle for the design of BCI rehabilitation in the future. Indeed, no available BCIs can match this degree of functional improvement with such a short intervention.