Peripheral electrical stimulation (ES) is commonly used as an intervention to facilitate movement and relieve pain in a variety of conditions. It is widely accepted that ES induces rapid plastic change in the motor cortex. This leads to the exciting possibility that ES could be used to drive cortical plasticity in movement disorders, such as stroke, and conditions where pain affects motor control. This paper aimed to critically review the literature to determine which parameters induced cortical plasticity in healthy individuals using ES. A literature search located papers that assessed plasticity in the primary motor cortex of adult humans. Studies that evaluated plasticity using change in the amplitude of potentials evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation of the motor cortex were included. Details from each study including sample size, ES parameters and reported findings were extracted and compared. Where data were available, Cohen's standardised mean differences (SMD) were calculated. Nineteen studies were located. Of the parameters evaluated, variation of the intensity of peripheral ES appeared to have the most consistent effect on modulation of excitability of corticomotor pathway to stimulated muscles. There was a trend for stimulation above motor threshold to increase excitability (SMD 0.79 mV, CI -0.10 to 1.64). Stimulation below motor threshold, but sufficient to induce sensory perception, produced conflicting results. Further studies with consistent methodology and larger subject numbers are needed before definitive conclusions can be drawn. There also appeared to be a time effect. That is, longer periods of ES induced more sustained changes in cortical excitability. There is insufficient evidence to determine the effect of other stimulation parameters such as frequency and waveform. Further research is needed to confirm whether modulation of these parameters affects plastic change.
Copyright © 2010 International Federation of Clinical Neurophysiology. Published by Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.