Dopamine depletion impairs gait automaticity by altering cortico-striatal and cerebellar processing in Parkinson's disease

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Impairments in motor automaticity cause patients with Parkinson's disease to rely on attentional resources during gait, resulting in greater motor variability and a higher risk of falls. Although dopaminergic circuitry is known to play an important role in motor automaticity, little evidence exists on the neural mechanisms underlying the breakdown of locomotor automaticity in Parkinson's disease. This impedes clinical management and is in great part due to mobility restrictions that accompany the neuroimaging of gait. This study therefore utilized a virtual reality gait paradigm in conjunction with functional MRI to investigate the role of dopaminergic medication on lower limb motor automaticity in 23 patients with Parkinson's disease that were measured both on and off dopaminergic medication. Participants either operated foot pedals to navigate a corridor (‘walk’ condition) or watched the screen while a researcher operated the paradigm from outside the scanner (‘watch’ condition), a setting that controlled for the non-motor aspects of the task. Step time variability during walk was used as a surrogate measure for motor automaticity (where higher variability equates to reduced automaticity), and patients demonstrated a predicted increase in step time variability during the dopaminergic “off” state. During the “off” state, subjects showed an increased blood oxygen level-dependent response in the bilateral orbitofrontal cortices (walk>watch). To estimate step time variability, a parametric modulator was designed that allowed for the examination of brain regions associated with periods of decreased automaticity. This analysis showed that patients on dopaminergic medication recruited the cerebellum during periods of increasing variability, whereas patients off medication instead relied upon cortical regions implicated in cognitive control. Finally, a task-based functional connectivity analysis was conducted to examine the manner in which dopamine modulates large-scale network interactions during gait. A main effect of medication was found for functional connectivity within an attentional motor network and a significant condition by medication interaction for functional connectivity was found within the striatum. Furthermore, functional connectivity within the striatum correlated strongly with increasing step time variability during walk in the off state (r=0.616, p=0.002), but not in the on state (r=−0.233, p=0.284). Post-hoc analyses revealed that functional connectivity in the dopamine depleted state within an orbitofrontal-striatal limbic circuit was correlated with worse step time variability (r=0.653, p<0.001). Overall, this study demonstrates that dopamine ameliorates gait automaticity in Parkinson's disease by altering striatal, limbic and cerebellar processing, thereby informing future therapeutic avenues for gait and falls prevention.

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