Background: The pathophysiological mechanisms underlying freezing of gait (FOG) are poorly defined. MRI studies in FOG showed a distinct pattern of cortical atrophy and decreased functional connectivity (FC) within motor and cognitive networks. Furthermore, reduced rs-FC within midbrain, frontal, and temporal areas has been also described. This study investigated the patterns of whole-brain FC alterations within midbrain inter-connected regions in PD-FOG patients, and whether these patterns are linked to midbrain structural damage using a multi-modal imaging approach, combing structural and functional imaging techniques.
Methods: Thirty three PD patients (16 PD-FOG, 17 PD noFOG), and 21 sex- and age-matched healthy controls (HCs) were prospectively enrolled. All subjects underwent MRI scan at 1.5T, whereas only PD patients underwent clinical and cognitive assessment. Grey matter (GM) integrity was measured using voxel-based morphometry (VBM). VBM findings served as basis to localize midbrain damage, and were further used as a seed region for investigating whole-brain FC alterations using rs-fMRI.
Results: In rs-fMRI, patients with PD and FOG demonstrated significant decrease of midbrain-cortical FC levels in the R PCG, right postcentral, and supramarginal gyri compared to controls and the middle cingulate compared to noFOG group. Based on the regression analysis, MOCA, UPDRS-III total score, and FOG severity scores were associated with FC levels in several frontal, parietal and temporal regions.
Discussion: The present results suggest that midbrain structural damage as well as decreased FC within the brainstem functional network might contribute to FOG occurrence in PD patients.