(ATHENS, Ohio – Nov. 24, 2014) Researchers at the Ohio University
Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine have found that mental
imagery exercises can prevent muscles from getting weaker after not
being used for extended periods of time. This finding has potential
implications for patients undergoing neurorehabilitation, such as
those who have suffered a stroke. It is also a major breakthrough
for scientists and clinicians because it offers encouraging, new
evidence about the role of the nervous system in muscle weakness.
Although imagery techniques are commonly used by professional
athletes to improve their performance, this is the first study to
show that imagery can play a role in stopping or slowing the loss of
muscle strength following prolonged disuse. The results from the
study are slated to be published later this fall in the Journal
of Neurophysiology and are currently online at
According to Brian Clark, Ph.D., professor of physiology and
neuroscience at the Heritage College and executive director of the
Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI), scientists
have long known that the brain’s cortex helps coordinate and control
muscle movement, but there was controversy about the link between
the cortex and muscle strength. Clark describes muscles as the
puppets of the nervous system and the brain as the string that makes
“We wanted to tease out the underlying physiology between the
nervous system and muscles to better understand the brain’s role in
muscle weakness,” said Clark, who authored the article along with
OMNI researchers Niladri Mahato, M.B.B.S.; Masato Nakazawa, Ph.D.;
Timothy Law, D.O., M.B.A.; and James Thomas, P.T., Ph.D.
OMNI is an interdisciplinary institute that brings together
scientists from several Ohio University colleges and schools to
study disorders of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. OMNI has
strong programmatic efforts in two research divisions: 1)
musculoskeletal and neurological pain disorders and 2) healthy
aging. The research across these two divisions has an overarching
aim of developing interventions that remove barriers to independent
physical mobility and ultimately reduce disability.
“What our study suggests is that imagery exercises could be a
valuable tool to prevent or slow muscles from becoming weaker when a
health problem limits or restricts a person’s mobility,” said Clark.
“The most impactful finding, however, is not the direct clinical
application but the support that this work provides for us to better
understand the critical importance of the brain in regulating muscle
strength. This information may fundamentally change how we think
about muscle weakness in the elderly.”
To test the brain’s connection to muscle strength, study
participants had one arm immobilized in a cast for a month. Five
times a week, they performed imagery exercises. In the exercise,
researchers told participants to relax their forearm muscles and
then imagine contracting their muscles and flexing their wrist.
Researchers recorded participants’ muscle activity using an
Clark will be conducting additional research on muscle strength
loss in an upcoming four-year project funded by the National
Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Aging. The study,
officially named Unraveling the Neural Contributions of Dynapenia in
Elders (The UNCODE Study), will use noninvasive techniques to better
understand the connection between the brain, nervous system and
muscles in the elderly.
The imagery study was primarily funded from a grant from the
NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and
The Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine is a
leader in training dedicated primary care physicians who are
prepared to address the most pervasive medical needs in the state
and the nation. Approximately 50 percent of Heritage College alumni
practice in primary care and nearly 60 percent practice in Ohio.
CARE LEADS HERE.