Modulation of associative human motor cortical plasticity by attention

J Neurophysiol. 2004 Jul;92(1):66-72. doi: 10.1152/jn.00383.2003. Epub 2004 Jan 14.


The role of attention in generating motor memories remains controversial principally because it is difficult to separate the effects of attention from changes in kinematics of motor performance. We attempted to disentangle attention from performance effects by varying attention while plasticity was induced in human primary motor cortex by external stimulation in the absence of voluntary movement. A paired associative stimulation (PAS) protocol was employed consisting of repetitive application of single afferent electric stimuli, delivered to the right median nerve, paired with single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) over the optimal site for activation of the right abductor pollicis brevis muscle (APB) to generate near-synchronous events in the left primary motor cortex. In experiment 1, the spatial location of attention was varied. PAS failed to induce plasticity when the subject's attention was directed to their left hand, away from the right target hand the cortical representation of which was being stimulated by PAS. In experiment 2, the grade of attention to the target hand was manipulated. PAS-induced plasticity was maximal when the subject viewed their target hand, and its magnitude was slightly reduced when the subject could only feel their hand. Conversely, plasticity was completely blocked when the subject's attention was diverted from the target hand by a competing cognitive task. A similar modulation by attention was observed for PAS-induced changes in the duration of the silent period evoked by TMS in voluntarily contracted muscle. Associative plasticity in the human motor cortex depends decisively on attention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Association*
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Electric Stimulation / methods
  • Electromyography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials, Motor / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*