Real-time functional MRI neurofeedback allows individuals to self-modulate their ongoing brain activity. This may be a useful tool in clinical disorders that are associated with altered brain activity patterns. Motor impairment after stroke has previously been associated with decreased laterality of motor cortex activity. Here we examined whether chronic stroke survivors were able to use real-time fMRI neurofeedback to increase laterality of motor cortex activity and assessed effects on motor performance and on brain structure and function. We carried out a randomized, double-blind, sham-controlled trial (ClinicalTrials.gov: NCT03775915) in which 24 chronic stroke survivors with mild to moderate upper limb impairment experienced three training days of either Real (n = 12) or Sham (n = 12) neurofeedback. Assessments of brain structure, brain function and measures of upper-limb function were carried out before and 1 week after neurofeedback training. Additionally, measures of upper-limb function were repeated 1 month after neurofeedback training. Primary outcome measures were (i) changes in lateralization of motor cortex activity during movements of the stroke-affected hand throughout neurofeedback training days; and (ii) changes in motor performance of the affected limb on the Jebsen Taylor Test (JTT). Stroke survivors were able to use Real neurofeedback to increase laterality of motor cortex activity within (P = 0.019), but not across, training days. There was no group effect on the primary behavioural outcome measure, which was average JTT performance across all subtasks (P = 0.116). Secondary analysis found improvements in the performance of the gross motor subtasks of the JTT in the Real neurofeedback group compared to Sham (P = 0.010). However, there were no improvements on the Action Research Arm Test or the Upper Extremity Fugl-Meyer score (both P > 0.5). Additionally, decreased white-matter asymmetry of the corticospinal tracts was detected 1 week after neurofeedback training (P = 0.008), indicating that the tracts become more similar with Real neurofeedback. Changes in the affected corticospinal tract were positively correlated with participants neurofeedback performance (P = 0.002). Therefore, here we demonstrate that chronic stroke survivors are able to use functional MRI neurofeedback to self-modulate motor cortex activity in comparison to a Sham control, and that training is associated with improvements in gross hand motor performance and with white matter structural changes.
motor cortex, neurofeedback, real-time fMRI, stroke, white matter