The present study aimed to investigate neurophysiologic mechanisms mediating the newly discovered phenomenon of respiratory-motor interactions and to explore its potential clinical application for motor recovery. First, young and healthy subjects were instructed to breathe normally (NORM); to exhale (OUT) or inhale (IN) as fast as possible in a self-paced manner; or to voluntarily hold breath (HOLD). In experiment 1 (n = 14), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was applied during 10% maximal voluntary contraction (MVC) finger flexion force production or at rest. The motor-evoked potentials (MEPs) were recorded from flexor digitorum superficialis (FDS), extensor digitorum communis (EDC), and abductor digiti minimi (ADM) muscles. Similarly, in experiment 2 (n = 11), electrical stimulation (ES) was applied to FDS or EDC during the described four breathing conditions while subjects maintained 10%MVC of finger flexion or extension and at rest. In the exploratory clinical experiments (experiment 3), four patients with chronic neurological disorders (three strokes, one traumatic brain injury) received a 30-min session of breathing-controlled ES to the impaired EDC. In experiment 1, the EDC MEP magnitudes increased significantly during IN and OUT at both 10%MVC and rest; the FDS MEPs were enhanced only at 10%MVC, whereas the ADM MEP increased only during OUT, compared with NORM for both at rest and 10%MVC. No difference was found between NORM and HOLD for all three muscles. In experiment 2, when FDS was stimulated, force response was enhanced during both IN and OUT, but only at 10%MVC. When EDC was stimulated, force response increased at both 10%MVC and rest, only during IN, but not OUT. The averaged response latency was 83 ms for the finger extensors and 79 ms for the finger flexors. After a 30-min intervention of ES to EDC triggered by forced inspiration in experiment 3, we observed a significant reduction in finger flexor spasticity. The spasticity reduction lasted for ≥4 wk in all four patients. TMS and ES data, collectively, support the phenomenon that there is an overall respiration-related enhancement on the motor system, with a strong inspiration-finger extension coupling during voluntary breathing. As such, breathing-controlled electrical stimulation (i.e., stimulation to finger extensors delivered during the voluntary inspiratory phase) could be applied for enhancing finger extension strength and finger flexor spasticity reduction in poststroke patients.
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