Physiology of modulation of motor cortex excitability by low-frequency suprathreshold repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation

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Many studies show consistently that repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) with a frequency of 1 Hz and an intensity above the resting motor threshold (RMT) performed for several minutes over the primary motor cortex (M1) leads to a depression of cortical excitability. Furthermore, most studies concur on a facilitation of the non-stimulated contralateral M1. Little is known, however, about the physiological mechanisms underlying these effects. In 11 healthy volunteers, we stimulated the left M1 for 15 min with 1 Hz-rTMS of 115% RMT. Before, immediately after, and 30 min after the rTMS train, we examined short-interval intracortical inhibition (SICI; interstimulus interval (ISI) of 2 and 4 ms), intracortical facilitation (ICF; ISI 10 ms), and short-interval intracortical facilitation (SICF; ISI 1.5 ms) with established paired-pulse protocols. Mean unconditioned motor evoked potential (MEP) amplitudes and RMT were also measured. Two sessions were run at least 1 week apart, in one excitability of the stimulated M1 was tested, in the other one excitability of the non-stimulated M1. rTMS led to the expected reduction of MEP amplitude of the stimulated M1, which was significant only immediately after the rTMS train. rTMS increased MEP amplitude of the non-stimulated M1, which lasted for at least 30 min. RMT, SICI, ICF and SICF did not show any significant change in either M1, except for a long lasting increase of SICF in the non-stimulated M1. In conclusion, the MEP increase in the non-stimulated M1 lasted longer than the MEP decrease in the stimulated M1. Only the long-lasting MEP increase was associated with a specific change in intracortical excitability (increase in SICF). Modulation of motor cortical inhibition did not play a role in explaining the rTMS induced changes in MEP amplitude.

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