Neural Correlates of Transient Mal de Debarquement Syndrome: Activation of Prefrontal and Deactivation of Cerebellar Networks Correlate With Neuropsychological Assessment

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Background: Mal de debarquement syndrome (MdDS) is characterized by a subjective perception of self-motion after exposure to passive motion, mostly after sea travel. A transient form of MdDS (t-MdDS) is common in healthy individuals without pathophysiological certainty. In the present cross-sectional study, the possible neuropsychiatric and functional neuroimaging changes in local fishermen with t-MdDS were evaluated.

Methods: The present study included 28 fishermen from Buan County in South Korea; 15 (15/28, 53.6%) participants experienced t-MdDS for 1–6 h, and 13 were asymptomatic (13/28, 46.4%). Vestibular function tests were performed using video-oculography, the video head impulse test, and ocular and cervical vestibular-evoked myogenic potentials. Visuospatial function was also assessed by the Corsi block test. Brain imaging comprised structural MRI, resting-state functional MRI, and [18F]FDG PET scans.

Results: The results of vestibular function tests did not differ between the fishermen with and those without t-MdDS. However, participants with t-MdDS showed better performance in visuospatial memory function than those without t-MdDS (6.40 vs. 5.31, p-value = 0.016) as determined by the Corsi block test. Structural brain MRIs were normal in both groups. [18F]FDG PET showed a relative hypermetabolism in the bilateral occipital and prefrontal cortices and hypometabolism in the vestibulocerebellum (nodulus and uvula) in participants with t-MdDS compared to those without t-MdDS. Resting-state functional connectivities were significantly decreased between the vestibular regions of the flocculus, superior temporal gyrus, and parietal operculum and the visual association areas of the middle occipital gyrus, fusiform gyrus, and cuneus in participants with t-MdDS. Analysis of functional connectivity of the significant regions in the PET scans revealed decreased connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and visual processing areas in the t-MdDS group.

Conclusion: Increased visuospatial memory, altered metabolism in the prefrontal cortex, visual cognition cortices, and the vestibulocerebellum, and decreased functional connectivity between these two functional areas might indicate reductions in the integration of vestibular input and enhancement of visuospatial attention in subjects with t-MdDS. Current functional neuroimaging similarities from transient MdDS via chronic MdDS to functional dizziness and anxiety disorders suggest a shared mechanism of enhanced self-awareness as a kind of continuum or as overlap disorders.

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