Functional neuroimaging studies may contribute to elucidate pathophysiological mechanisms of the restless legs syndrome (RLS) which still remain unclear. Studies in patients with RLS have been performed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and, more recently, positron emission tomography (PET). SPECT and PET studies revealed some controversial results of the pre- and postsynaptic dopaminergic neurotransmission system and cerebral metabolism in RLS probably reflecting a dysfunction of the central dopaminergic system. However, it still has to be determined whether these alterations affect the nigrostriatal and/or other central dopaminergic systems like the diencephalospinal or mesolimbic pathway and whether they are the primary mechanisms or only secondary phenomena within the manifestation of RLS symptoms. A subtle receptor dysfunction or a synaptic dopaminergic deficit may play a major role. fMRI investigations of RLS patients revealed an activation in the red nuclei and brainstem close to the reticular formation during the symptomatic period, suggesting that subcortical cerebral generators are involved in the pathogenesis of RLS. However, both techniques are not yet clinically relevant methods to differentiate RLS from other movement disorders during sleep. Further investigations, especially at night when RLS symptoms are most pronounced, will lead to a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying RLS.
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