Being able to stop walking to allow a car to pass is one example of how terminating a movement midway through can be essential for surviving in an ever-changing world.
However, people with Parkinson’s disease sometimes struggle to stop performing a repetitive movement. Also, they may find themselves stopping despite having intended to keep moving.
This inability to control stopping and starting can play havoc with everyday activities such as walking.
Deep Brain Stimulation
Some people with Parkinson’s disease find that their symptoms improve after a treatment called deep brain stimulation. Surgeons lower electrodes into specific regions of the brain and use them to block the abnormal electrical activity that causes problems with movement.
One of the main brain regions targeted is an area called the subthalamic nucleus. Whenever people initiate a movement, nerve cells in the subthalamic nucleus start to become activated at the same time.
This synchronization generates rhythmic waves of activity in the subthalamic nucleus, which are called gamma waves.
Contralateral STN power changes around the stop signal. Credit: Petra Fischer, et al.
To find out whether gamma waves are also involved in stopping a movement, Petra Fischer of the University of Oxford, and colleagues, measured activity in the subthalamic nucleus of nine patients with Parkinson’s disease as they performed a finger tapping exercise.
Manipulation Of Gamma Waves
The patients had to tap their finger in time with a metronome, but refrain from tapping whenever they heard a high pitched noise. As expected, a burst of gamma waves accompanied the start of each finger tap.
However, Fischer et al. showed that an increase in gamma waves also occurred whenever patients successfully stopped a finger tap midway. Gamma waves may thus help people to interact flexibly with the world around them.
Techniques like deep brain stimulation have the potential to manipulate gamma waves. In order to treat symptoms without causing side effects, we need to work out how to target brain waves that are altered in patients, without disrupting other processes.
A key step towards achieving this is to understand how brain waves change during essential behaviours such as stopping an on-going movement.