Long-term changes of GABAergic function in the sensorimotor cortex of amputees
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Primary sensory and motor areas of the cerebral cortex contain organised maps of the body. These maps appear to reorganise after damage to the peripheral parts of the sensory or motor systems, so that the cortical representation of undamaged structures expands at the expense of the damaged parts. Several studies in animals have suggested that decreased activity of the inhibitory GABAergic neurones is responsible for driving these changes. However, whether similar mechanisms sustain the effects in the longer term in humans is unknown. The present study addressed this question by examining reorganisation of sensorimotor areas of cortex in six unilateral upper limb amputees several years after the initial injury. We measured two independent indices of GABAergic function. Volumes of distribution of GABAA receptors were determined from 11C-flumazenil binding measured with positron emission tomography (PET). The strength of inhibition in the motor cortex was measured with paired-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation. In the six amputees taken as a whole and compared with 24 normal subjects, there was a highly significant increase in 11C-flumazenil binding in the upper limb region of primary sensorimotor cortex bilaterally and in medial frontal cortex of the hemisphere contralateral to the amputation. Surprisingly, however, there was no change in the time course or strength of intra-cortical inhibition in the motor cortex of the amputees compared with matched control subjects. The increased 11C-flumazenil binding may reflect up-regulation of GABAA receptors to compensate for a decrease in the GABA content or activity of inhibitory neurones. Up-regulation of GABAA receptors may also indicate that long-term changes require stabilisation of cortical organisation.
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