Patterns of stereotyped muscle coactivation, clinically referred to as synergies, emerge following stroke and impair arm function. Although researchers have focused on cortical contributions, there is growing evidence that altered stretch reflex pathways may also contribute to impairment. However, most previous reflex studies have focused on passive, single-joint movements without regard to their coordination during volitional actions. The purpose of this study was to examine the effects of stroke on coordinated activity of stretch reflexes elicited in multiple arm muscles following multijoint perturbations. We hypothesized that cortical injury results in increased stretch reflexes of muscles characteristic of the abnormal flexor synergy during active arm conditions. To test this hypothesis, we used a robot to apply position perturbations to impaired arms of 10 stroke survivors and dominant arms of 8 healthy age-matched controls. Corresponding reflexes were assessed during volitional contractions simulating different levels of gravitational support, as well as during voluntary flexion and extension of the elbow and shoulder. Reflexes were quantified by average rectified surface electromyogram, recorded from eight muscles spanning the elbow and shoulder. Reflex coordination was quantified using an independent components analysis. We found stretch reflexes elicited in the stroke group were significantly less sensitive to changes in background muscle activation compared with those in the control group (P < 0.05). We also observed significantly increased reflex coupling between elbow flexor and shoulder abductor- extensor muscles in stroke subjects relative to that in control subjects. This increased coupling was present only during volitional tasks that required elbow flexion (P < 0.001), shoulder extension (P < 0.01), and gravity opposition (P < 0.01), but not during the "no load" condition. During volitional contractions, reflex amplitudes scaled with the level of impairment, as assessed by Fugl-Meyer scores (r2 = 0.63; P < 0.05). We conclude that altered reflex coordination is indicative of motor impairment level and may contribute to impaired arm function following stroke.
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