The corpus striatum serves a critical function in inhibiting involuntary, intrusive movements. Striatal degeneration in Huntington's disease results in a loss of motor inhibition, manifested by abnormal involuntary choreiform movements. Sensorimotor inhibition, or "gating", can be measured in humans using the startle reflex: the startle reflex is normally inhibited when the startling stimulus is preceded 30-500 ms earlier by a weak prepulse. In the present study, prepulse inhibition (PPI) was measured in patients with Huntington's disease to quantify and characterise sensorimotor gating. Compared with age matched controls, patients with Huntington's disease exhibit less PPI. Startle gating deficits are evident in patients with Huntington's disease when startle is elicited by either acoustic or tactile stimuli. Even with stimuli that elicit maximal PPI in normal subjects, patients with Huntington's disease exhibit little or no PPI, and their pattern of startle gating does not show the normal modulatory effects usually elicited by changing the prepulse interval or intensity. Startle amplitude and habituation and latency facilitation are largely intact in these patients, although reflex latency is significantly slowed. In patients with Huntington's disease, startle reflex slowing correlates with cognitive impairment measured by the dementia rating scale, and with the performance disruptive effects of interference measured by the Stroop test. These findings document a profound disruption of sensorimotor gating in patients with Huntington's disease and are consistent with preclinical findings that identify the striatum and striatopallidal GABAergic efferent circuitry as critical substrates for sensorimotor gating of the startle reflex.
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