It has been proposed that somatosensory stimulation in the form of electromyographically triggered neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) to the peripheral nerve can influence functional measures of motor performance in subjects with stroke and can additionally produce changes in cortical excitability. Using a controlled, double-blind design, we studied the effects of intensive (60 h/3 weeks) treatment at home with NMES compared with a sham treatment, applied to the extensor muscles of the hemiplegic forearm to facilitate hand opening in 16 chronic stroke subjects. We investigated improvement in functional use of the hand and change in cortical activation as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Following treatment, subjects improved on measures of grasp and release of objects (Box and Block Test and Jebsen Taylor Hand Function Test [JTHFT]: small objects, stacking, heavy cans), isometric finger extension strength, and self-rated Motor Activity Log (MAL): Amount of Use and How Well score. The sham subjects did not improve on any grasp and release measure or self-rated scale, but did improve on isometric finger extension strength. Importantly, however, following crossover, these subjects improved further in the measure of strength, grasp and release (Box and Block [JTHFT]: page turning), and self-rated MAL: Amount of Use score and How Well score. Using fMRI and a finger-tracking task, an index of cortical intensity in the ipsilateral somatosensory cortex increased significantly from pre-test to post-test following treatment. Cortical activation, as measured by voxel count, did not change. These findings suggest that NMES may have an important role in stimulating cortical sensory areas allowing for improved motor function.
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