The pharmacology of neuroplasticity induced by non-invasive brain stimulation: building models for the clinical use of CNS active drugs

J Physiol. 2012 Oct 1;590(19):4641-62. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2012.232975. Epub 2012 Aug 6.


The term neuroplasticity encompasses structural and functional modifications of neuronal connectivity. Abnormal neuroplasticity is involved in various neuropsychiatric diseases, such as dystonia, epilepsy, migraine, Alzheimer's disease, fronto-temporal degeneration, schizophrenia, and post cerebral stroke. Drugs affecting neuroplasticity are increasingly used as therapeutics in these conditions. Neuroplasticity was first discovered and explored in animal experimentation. However, non-invasive brain stimulation (NIBS) has enabled researchers recently to induce and study similar processes in the intact human brain. Plasticity induced by NIBS can be modulated by pharmacological interventions, targeting ion channels, or neurotransmitters. Importantly, abnormalities of plasticity as studied by NIBS are directly related to clinical symptoms in neuropsychiatric diseases. Therefore, a core theme of this review is the hypothesis that NIBS-induced plasticity can explore and potentially predict the therapeutic efficacy of CNS-acting drugs in neuropsychiatric diseases. We will (a) review the basics of neuroplasticity, as explored in animal experimentation, and relate these to our knowledge about neuroplasticity induced in humans by NIBS techniques. We will then (b) discuss pharmacological modulation of plasticity in animals and humans. Finally, we will (c) review abnormalities of plasticity in neuropsychiatric diseases, and discuss how the combination of NIBS with pharmacological intervention may improve our understanding of the pathophysiology of abnormal plasticity in these diseases and their purposeful pharmacological treatment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology
  • Central Nervous System Agents / pharmacology
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Humans
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / physiopathology
  • Neuronal Plasticity / drug effects
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Schizophrenia / physiopathology
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation


  • Central Nervous System Agents