Background and Purpose: Stroke often impairs gait thereby reducing mobility and fitness and promoting chronic disability. Gait is a complex sensorimotor function controlled by integrated cortical, subcortical, and spinal networks. The mechanisms of gait recovery after stroke are not well understood. This study examines the hypothesis that progressive task-repetitive treadmill exercise (T-EX) improves fitness and gait function in subjects with chronic hemiparetic stroke by inducing adaptations in the brain (plasticity). Methods: A randomized controlled trial determined the effects of 6-month T-EX (n≤37) versus comparable duration stretching (CON, n≤34) on walking, aerobic fitness and in a subset (n≤15/17) on brain activation measured by functional MRI. Results: T-EX significantly improved treadmill-walking velocity by 51% and cardiovascular fitness by 18% (11% and -3% for CON, respectively; P<0.05). T-EX but not CON affected brain activation during paretic, but not during nonparetic limb movement, showing 72% increased activation in posterior cerebellar lobe and 18% in midbrain (P<0.005). Exercise-mediated improvements in walking velocity correlated with increased activation in cerebellum and midbrain. Conclusions: T-EX improves walking, fitness and recruits cerebellum-midbrain circuits, likely reflecting neural network plasticity. This neural recruitment is associated with better walking. These findings demonstrate the effectiveness of T-EX rehabilitation in promoting gait recovery of stroke survivors with long-term mobility impairment and provide evidence of neuroplastic mechanisms that could lead to further refinements in these paradigms to improve functional outcomes.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Clinical Neurology
- Cardiology and Cardiovascular Medicine
- Advanced and Specialized Nursing