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1.  Motor Skill Learning Induces Changes in White Matter Microstructure and Myelination 
The Journal of Neuroscience  2013;33(50):19499-19503.
Learning a novel motor skill is associated with well characterized structural and functional plasticity in the rodent motor cortex. Furthermore, neuroimaging studies of visuomotor learning in humans have suggested that structural plasticity can occur in white matter (WM), but the biological basis for such changes is unclear. We assessed the influence of motor skill learning on WM structure within sensorimotor cortex using both diffusion MRI fractional anisotropy (FA) and quantitative immunohistochemistry. Seventy-two adult (male) rats were randomly assigned to one of three conditions (skilled reaching, unskilled reaching, and caged control). After 11 d of training, postmortem diffusion MRI revealed significantly higher FA in the skilled reaching group compared with the control groups, specifically in the WM subjacent to the sensorimotor cortex contralateral to the trained limb. In addition, within the skilled reaching group, FA across widespread regions of WM in the contralateral hemisphere correlated significantly with learning rate. Immunohistological analysis conducted on a subset of 24 animals (eight per group) revealed significantly increased myelin staining in the WM underlying motor cortex in the hemisphere contralateral (but not ipsilateral) to the trained limb for the skilled learning group versus the control groups. Within the trained hemisphere (but not the untrained hemisphere), myelin staining density correlated significantly with learning rate. Our results suggest that learning a novel motor skill induces structural change in task-relevant WM pathways and that these changes may in part reflect learning-related increases in myelination.
PMCID: PMC3858622  PMID: 24336716
2.  Tractography - where do we go from here? 
Brain connectivity  2011;1(3):169-183.
Diffusion tractography offers enormous potential for the study of human brain anatomy. However, as a method to study brain connectivity, tractography suffers from limitations, as it is indirect, inaccurate, and difficult to quantify. Despite these limitations, appropriate use of tractography can be a powerful means to address certain questions. In addition, while some of tractography’s limitations are fundamental, others could be alleviated by methodological and technological advances. This article provides an overview of diffusion MR tractography methods with a focus on how future advances might address challenges in measuring brain connectivity. Parts of this review are somewhat provocative, in the hope that they may trigger discussions possibly lacking in a field where the apparent simplicity of the methods (compared to their FMRI counterparts) can hide some fundamental issues that ultimately hinder the interpretation of findings, and cast doubt as to what tractography can really teach us about human brain anatomy.
PMCID: PMC3677805  PMID: 22433046
3.  Relating Brain Damage to Brain Plasticity in Patients With Multiple Sclerosis 
Failure of adaptive plasticity with increasing pathology is suggested to contribute to progression of disability in multiple sclerosis (MS). However, functional impairments can be reduced with practice, suggesting that brain plasticity is preserved even in patients with substantial damage.
Here, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to probe systems-level mechanisms of brain plasticity associated with improvements in visuomotor performance in MS patients and related to measures of microstructural damage.
23 MS patients and 12 healthy controls underwent brain fMRI during the first practice session of a visuomotor task (short-term practice) and after 2 weeks of daily practice with the same task (longer-term practice). Participants also underwent a structural brain MRI scan.
Patients performed more poorly than controls at baseline. Nonetheless, with practice, patients showed performance improvements similar to controls and independent of the extent of MRI measures of brain pathology. Different relationships between performance improvements and activations were found between groups: greater short-term improvements were associated with lower activation in the sensorimotor, posterior cingulate, and parahippocampal cortices for patients, whereas greater long-term improvements correlated with smaller activation reductions in the visual cortex of controls.
Brain plasticity for visuomotor practice is preserved in MS patients despite a high burden of cerebral pathology. Cognitive systems different from those acting in controls contribute to this plasticity in patients. These findings challenge the notion that increasing pathology is accompanied by an outright failure of adaptive plasticity, supporting a neuroscientific rationale for recovery-oriented strategies even in chronically disabled patients.
PMCID: PMC3674542  PMID: 22328685
4.  Structural and Functional Bases for Individual Differences in Motor Learning 
Human brain mapping  2011;32(3):494-508.
People vary in their ability to learn new motor skills. We hypothesize that between-subject variability in brain structure and function can explain differences in learning. We use brain functional and structural MRI methods to characterize such neural correlates of individual variations in motor learning. Healthy subjects applied isometric grip force of varying magnitudes with their right hands cued visually to generate smoothly-varying pressures following a regular pattern. We tested whether individual variations in motor learning were associated with anatomically colocalized variations in magnitude of functional MRI (fMRI) signal or in MRI differences related to white and grey matter microstructure. We found that individual motor learning was correlated with greater functional activation in the prefrontal, premotor, and parietal cortices, as well as in the basal ganglia and cerebellum.
Structural MRI correlates were found in the premotor cortex [for fractional anisotropy (FA)] and in the cerebellum [for both grey matter density and FA]. The cerebellar microstructural differences were anatomically colocalized with fMRI correlates of learning. This study thus suggests that variations across the population in the function and structure of specific brain regions for motor control explain some of the individual differences in skill learning. This strengthens the notion that brain structure determines some limits to cognitive function even in a healthy population. Along with evidence from pathology suggesting a role for these regions in spontaneous motor recovery, our results also highlight potential targets for therapeutic interventions designed to maximize plasticity for recovery of similar visuomotor skills after brain injury.
PMCID: PMC3674543  PMID: 20533562
5.  Preservation of motor skill learning in patients with multiple sclerosis 
Several studies have demonstrated benefits of rehabilitation in multiple sclerosis (MS). However, the neuroscientific foundations for rehabilitation in MS are poorly established.
As rehabilitation and motor learning share similar mechanisms of brain plasticity, we test whether the dynamics of skill learning are preserved in MS patients relative to controls.
MS patients and controls learned a repeating sequence of hand movements and were assessed for short-term learning. Long-term learning was tested in another cohort of patients and controls practising the same sequence daily for two weeks.
Despite differences in baseline performance, the dynamics and extent of improvements were comparable between MS and control groups for both the short- and long-term learning. Even the most severely damaged patients were capable of performance improvements of similar magnitude to that seen in controls. After one week of training patients performed as well as the controls at baseline.
Mechanisms for short- and long-term plasticity may compensate for impaired functional connectivity in MS to mediate behavioural improvements. Future studies are needed to define the neurobiological substrates of this plasticity and the extent to which mechanisms of plasticity in patients may be distinct from those used for motor learning in controls.
PMCID: PMC3671324  PMID: 20834040
Despite the prominence of parietal activity in human neuromaging investigations of sensorimotor and cognitive processes there remains uncertainty about basic aspects of parietal cortical anatomical organization. Descriptions of human parietal cortex draw heavily on anatomical schemes developed in other primate species but the validity of such comparisons has been questioned by claims that there are fundamental differences between the parietal cortex in humans and other primates. A scheme is presented for parcellation of human lateral parietal cortex into component regions on the basis of anatomical connectivity and the functional interactions of the resulting clusters with other brain regions. Anatomical connectivity was estimated using diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance image (MRI) based tractography and functional interactions were assessed by correlations in activity measured with functional MRI (fMRI) at rest. Resting state functional connectivity was also assessed directly in the rhesus macaque lateral parietal cortex in an additional experiment and the patterns found reflected known neuroanatomical connections. Cross-correlation in the tractography-based connectivity patterns of parietal voxels reliably parcellated human lateral parietal cortex into ten component clusters. The resting state functional connectivity of human superior parietal and intraparietal clusters with frontal and extrastriate cortex suggested correspondences with areas in macaque superior and intraparietal sulcus. Functional connectivity patterns with parahippocampal cortex and premotor cortex again suggested fundamental correspondences between inferior parietal cortex in humans and macaques. In contrast, the human parietal cortex differs in the strength of its interactions between the central inferior parietal lobule region and the anterior prefrontal cortex.
PMCID: PMC3091022  PMID: 21411650
7.  Diffusion imaging of whole, post-mortem human brains on a clinical MRI scanner 
Neuroimage  2011;57(1-4):167-181.
Diffusion imaging of post mortem brains has great potential both as a reference for brain specimens that undergo sectioning, and as a link between in vivo diffusion studies and “gold standard” histology/dissection. While there is a relatively mature literature on post mortem diffusion imaging of animals, human brains have proven more challenging due to their incompatibility with high-performance scanners. This study presents a method for post mortem diffusion imaging of whole, human brains using a clinical 3-Tesla scanner with a 3D segmented EPI spin-echo sequence. Results in eleven brains at 0.94 × 0.94 × 0.94 mm resolution are presented, and in a single brain at 0.73 × 0.73 × 0.73 mm resolution. Region-of-interest analysis of diffusion tensor parameters indicate that these properties are altered compared to in vivo (reduced diffusivity and anisotropy), with significant dependence on post mortem interval (time from death to fixation). Despite these alterations, diffusion tractography of several major tracts is successfully demonstrated at both resolutions. We also report novel findings of cortical anisotropy and partial volume effects.
Research highlights
► Acquisition and processing protocols for diffusion MRI of post-mortem human brains. ► Effect of post-mortem and scan intervals on diffusion indices. ► Tractography in post-mortem human brains. ► Radial diffusion anisotropy in cortical gray matter.
PMCID: PMC3115068  PMID: 21473920
Diffusion tensor imaging; Tractography; Post mortem; Human; Brain

Results 1-7 (7)