Modulating phonemic fluency performance in healthy subjects with transcranial magnetic stimulation over the left or right lateral frontal cortex
A growing body of evidence have suggested that non-invasive brain stimulation techniques, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), can improve the performance of aphasic patients in language tasks. For example, application of inhibitory rTMS or tDCs over the right frontal lobe of dysphasic patients resulted in improved naming abilities. Several studies have also reported that in healthy controls (HC) tDCS application over the left prefrontal cortex (PFC) improve performance in naming and semantic fluency tasks. The aim of this study was to investigate in HC, for the first time, the effects of inhibitory repetitive TMS (rTMS) over left and right lateral frontal cortex (BA 47) on two phonemic fluency tasks (FAS or FPL). 44 right-handed HCs were administered rTMS or sham over the left or right lateral frontal cortex in two separate testing sessions, with a 24 h interval, followed by the two phonemic fluency tasks. To account for possible practice effects, an additional 22 HCs were tested on only the phonemic fluency task across two sessions with no stimulation. We found that rTMS-inhibition over the left lateral frontal cortex significantly worsened phonemic fluency performance when compared to sham. In contrast, rTMS-inhibition over the right lateral frontal cortex significantly improved phonemic fluency performance when compared to sham. These results were not accounted for practice effects. We speculated that rTMS over the right lateral frontal cortex may induce plastic neural changes to the left lateral frontal cortex by suppressing interhemispheric inhibitory interactions. This resulted in an increased excitability (disinhibition) of the contralateral unstimulated left lateral frontal cortex, consequently enhancing phonemic fluency performance. Conversely, application of rTMS over the left lateral frontal cortex may induce a temporary, virtual lesion, with effects similar to those reported in left frontal patients.