Since early days after stroke, the brain undergoes a complex reorganization to allow compensatory mechanisms that promote functional recovery. However, these mechanisms are still poorly understood and there is urgent need to identify neurophysiological markers of functional recovery after stroke. Here we aimed to track longitudinally the time-course of cortical reorganization by measuring for the first time EEG cortical activity evoked by TMS pulses in patients with subcortical stroke.
Thirteen patients in the sub-acute phase of ischemic subcortical stroke with motor symptoms completed the longitudinal study, being evaluated within 20 days and after 40, 60 and 180 days after stroke onset. For each time-point, EEG cortical activity evoked by single TMS pulses was assessed over the motor and parietal cortex of the affected and unaffected hemisphere. We evaluated global TMS-evoked activity and TMS-evoked oscillations in different frequency bands. These measurements were paralleled with clinical and behavioral assessment.
We found that motor cortical activity measured by TMS-EEG varied across time in the affected hemisphere. An increase of TMS-evoked activity was evident at 40 days after stroke onset. Moreover, stroke patients showed a significant increase in TMS-evoked alpha oscillations, as highlighted performing analysis in the time-frequency domain. Notably, these changes indicated that crucial mechanisms of cortical reorganization occur in this short-time window. These changes coincided with the clinical improvement. TMS-evoked alpha oscillatory activity recorded at baseline was associated to better functional recovery at 40 and 60 days' follow-up evaluations, suggesting that the power of the alpha rhythm can be considered a good predictor of motor recovery. This study demonstrates that cortical activity increases dynamically in the early phases of recovery after stroke in the affected hemisphere. These findings point to TMS-evoked alpha oscillatory activity as a potential neurophysiological markers of stroke recovery and could be helpful to determine the temporal window in which neuromodulation should be potentially able to drive neuroplasticity in an effective functional direction.