While previous studies have assessed changes in corticospinal excitability following voluntary contraction coupled with electrical stimulation (ES), we sought to examine, for the first time in the field, real-time changes in corticospinal excitability. We monitored motor evoked potentials (MEPs) elicited by transcranial magnetic stimulation and recorded the MEPs using a mechanomyogram, which is less susceptible to electrical artifacts. We assessed the MEPs at each level of muscle contraction of wrist flexion (0%, 5%, or 20% of maximum voluntary contraction) during voluntary wrist flexion (flexor carpi radialis (FCR) voluntary contraction), either with or without simultaneous low-frequency (10 Hz) ES of the median nerve that innervates the FCR. The stimulus intensity corresponded to 1.2× perception threshold. In the FCR, voluntary contraction with median nerve stimulation significantly increased corticospinal excitability compared with FCR voluntary contraction without median nerve stimulation (p<0.01). In addition, corticospinal excitability was significantly modulated by the level of FCR voluntary contraction. In contrast, in the extensor carpi radialis (ECR), FCR voluntary contraction with median nerve stimulation significantly decreased corticospinal excitability compared with FCR voluntary contraction without median nerve stimulation (p<0.05). Thus, median nerve stimulation during FCR voluntary contraction induces reciprocal changes in cortical excitability in agonist and antagonist muscles. Finally we also showed that even mental imagery of FCR voluntary contraction with median nerve stimulation induced the same reciprocal changes in cortical excitability in agonist and antagonist muscles. Our results support the use of voluntary contraction coupled with ES in neurorehabilitation therapy for patients.
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