Parkinson’s disease (PD) causes difficulty with maintaining the speed, size, and vigor of movements, especially when they are internally generated. We previously proposed that the insula is important in motivating intentional movement via its connections with the dorsomedial frontal cortex (dmFC). We demonstrated that subjects with PD can increase the right insula-dmFC functional connectivity using fMRI-based neurofeedback (NF) combined with kinesthetic motor imagery (MI). The current study is a randomized clinical trial testing whether NF-guided kinesthetic MI training can improve motor performance and increase task-based and resting-state right insula-dmFC functional connectivity in subjects with PD.
We assigned nondemented subjects with mild PD (Hoehn & Yahr stage ≤ 3) to the experimental kinesthetic MI with NF (MI-NF, n = 22) and active control visual imagery (VI, n = 22) groups. Only the MI-NF group received NF-guided MI training (10-12 runs). The NF signal was based on the right insula-dmFC functional connectivity strength. All subjects also practiced their respective imagery tasks at home daily for 4 weeks. Post-training changes in 1) task-based and resting-state right insula-dmFC functional connectivity were the primary imaging outcomes, and 2) MDS-UPDRS motor exam and motor function scores were the primary and secondary clinical outcomes, respectively.
The MI-NF group was not significantly different from the VI group in any of the primary imaging or clinical outcome measures. The MI-NF group reported subjective improvement in kinesthetic body awareness. There was significant and comparable improvement only in motor function scores in both groups (secondary clinical outcome). This improvement correlated with NF regulation of the right insula-dmFC functional connectivity only in the MI-NF group. Both groups showed specific training effects in whole-brain functional connectivity with distinct neural circuits supporting kinesthetic motor and visual imagery (exploratory imaging outcome).
The functional connectivity-based NF regulation was unsuccessful, however, both kinesthetic MI and VI practice improved motor function in our cohort with mild PD.

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