Conceiving theoretical models to explain the causal link between dysfunctional brain networks and clinical phenotypes is a major challenge in clinical neuroscience. Sensorimotor integration -the ability to organize sensory perceptions and motor actions- is crucial for efficiently interacting with the environment. Nevertheless, in the current models of sensorimotor integration the reciprocal role of sensory and motor processes is still unclear. The dissociation between these two sources of information is necessary to better understand the nature of their integration and is provided by motor imagery, a cognitive task that activates motor representations without sensory stimulation. Motor imagery tasks are particularly important for studying the physiology of pathological conditions such as focal hand dystonia (FHD), a disorder with sensory abnormalities and selective motor impairments but without alterations in basic motor functions. Furthermore the established treatment of FHD is only symptomatic. Thus there is pressing need to develop curative intervention protocols. However, before implementing novel treatment strategies it is necessary to: 1) validate a theoretical model of sensorimotor integration; 2) improve the in-depth knowledge about pathophysiological sensorimotor processes; 3) understand the neural mechanisms of treatment-induced changes.
I propose that the abnormal behavior in FHD is the manifestation of a breakdown in the sensorimotor loop due to loss of inhibition, aberrant neural plasticity, and defective learning-based sensorimotor integration. Considering the strong evidence of altered somatosensory feedback associated with movement execution in FHD, my research project aims at investigating healthy and abnormal sensorimotor networks using motor imagery. I will apply dedicated behavioral, neuroimaging, and neurophysiological testing to obtain fine-tuned measurements of healthy and FHD-related brain activity associated with motor imagery as a biomarker of sensorimotor processes. In addition, in order to improve therapeutic interventions I will investigate the clinical and neural effects of a non-invasive FHD treatment. I expect that this treatment will improve patients’ performance and will facilitate cortical reorganization in the direction of patterns observed in controls.
My project will identify syndrome-related changes in brain activity and will provide unique insights on the organization and the interaction of different brain networks. Not only it will improve the understanding of healthy and pathological sensorimotor integration, also it will impact the clinical outcomes for patients’ quality of life. Indeed the knowledge extension about the mechanisms of sensorimotor integration and the obtained results in FHD will provide sufficient understanding for identifying effective rehabilitation protocols which will open a new scenario for the development of non-invasive therapeutic interventions extendable to other sensorimotor syndromes.
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