Loss of hand function after stroke is a major cause of long-term disability. Hand function can be partitioned into strength and independent control of fingers (individuation).
Here we developed a novel paradigm, which independently quantifies these two aspects of hand function, to track hand recovery in 54 patients with hemiparesis over the first year after their stroke. Most recovery of both strength and individuation occurred in the first three months after stroke. Improvement in strength and individuation were tightly correlated up to a strength level of approximately 60% of the unaffected side. Beyond this threshold, further gains in strength were not accompanied by improvements in individuation. Any observed improvements in individuation beyond the 60% threshold were attributable instead to a second independent stable factor.
Lesion analysis revealed that damage to the hand area in motor cortex and the corticospinal tract (CST) correlated more with individuation than with strength. CST involvement correlated with individuation even after factoring out the strength-individuation correlation. The most parsimonious explanation for these behavioral and lesion-based findings is that most strength recovery, along with some individuation, can be attributed to descending systems other than the CST, whereas further recovery of individuation is CST dependent. (Note: Jing Xu and Naveed Ejaz contributed equally to this work.)