Purpose: The purpose of this study was to assess cortical activation associated with the cross-education effect to an immobilized limb, using functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Methods: Fourteen right-handed participants were assigned to two groups. One group (n = 7) wore a cast and strength trained the free arm (CAST-TRAIN). The second group (n = 7) wore a cast and did not strength train (CAST). Casts were applied to the nondominant (left) wrist and hand. Strength training was maximal isometric handgrip contractions (right hand) 5 d·wk−1. Peak force (handgrip dynamometer), muscle thickness (ultrasound), EMG, and cortical activation (functional magnetic resonance imaging) were assessed before and after the intervention.
Results: CAST-TRAIN improved right handgrip strength by 10.7% (P < 0.01) with no change in muscle thickness. There was a significant group × time interaction for strength of the immobilized arm (P < 0.05). Handgrip strength of the immobilized arm of CAST-TRAIN was maintained, whereas the immobilized arm of CAST significantly decreased by 11% (P < 0.05). Muscle thickness of the immobilized arm decreased by an average of 3.3% (P < 0.05) for all participants and was not different between groups after adjusting for baseline differences. There was a significant group × time interaction for EMG activation (P < 0.05), where CAST-TRAIN showed an increasing trend and CAST showed a decreasing trend, pooled across arms. For the immobilized arm of CAST-TRAIN, there was a significant increase in contralateral motor cortex activation after training (P < 0.05). For the immobilized arm of CAST, there was no change in motor cortex activation.
Conclusions: Handgrip strength training of the free limb attenuated strength loss during unilateral immobilization. The maintenance of strength in the immobilized limb via the cross-education effect may be associated with increased motor cortex activation.