Volume 6 (2017) Pages 15-20
Bipedal locomotion requires an automatic process for rhythmic motor generation, as well as volitional and precise motor control for purposeful action. The neural substrates for these two distinct locomotion controls in humans are still unclear. This functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study investigated the neural activity of the locomotor-related brain regions along with participants' lower limb behavior. Participants lay face-up in the MRI bore and moved their legs up and down at the knees under two conditions. Under the non-obstacle condition, they moved their legs while watching a point-of-view video that showed walking straight along a corridor at a constant speed. On the other hand, under the obstacle condition, the point-of-view video showed walking while avoiding obstacles in the passage. Two white markers were pasted on the soles of the participants' feet and images were captured by a video camera throughout the experiment to track the participants' lower limb movements. The horizontal fluctuation of lower limb movement was extracted offline. We assumed that the horizontal fluctuation reflected participants' volitional behavior of lower limb movement. The results showed that the obstacle condition elicited greater fluctuation of lower limb movement compared to the non-obstacle condition, and elicited brain activation in wider areas including the parietal and occipital lobes compared to the non-obstacle condition. The involvement of the parietal and occipital lobes in volitional control is consistent with findings of previous animal studies. In a correlation analysis between the signal change extracted from the locomotor-related cortical/subcortical regions and the horizontal fluctuation of the feet, activities in the cortical motor areas (primary motor cortex, premotor cortex, and supplementary motor area) showed weak but significant correlation with the fluctuation of lower limb movement. Activities in the cerebellar and mesencephalic locomotor regions showed no significant correlation, but almost constant activation irrespective of fluctuation of the lower limbs. These results suggest that the parietal, occipital cortices, and cortical motor areas are involved in volitional control.