Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation: Decomposing the Processes Underlying Action Preparation

Neuroscientist. 2016 Aug;22(4):392-405. doi: 10.1177/1073858415592594. Epub 2015 Jul 10.


Preparing actions requires the operation of several cognitive control processes that influence the state of the motor system to ensure that the appropriate behavior is ultimately selected and executed. For example, some form of competition resolution ensures that the right action is chosen among alternatives, often in the presence of conflict; at the same time, impulse control ought to be deployed to prevent premature responses. Here we review how state-changes in the human motor system during action preparation can be studied through motor-evoked potentials (MEPs) elicited by transcranial magnetic stimulation over the contralateral primary motor cortex (M1). We discuss how the physiological fingerprints afforded by MEPs have helped to decompose some of the dynamic and effector-specific influences on the motor system during action preparation. We focus on competition resolution, conflict and impulse control, as well as on the influence of higher cognitive decision-related variables. The selected examples demonstrate the usefulness of MEPs as physiological readouts for decomposing the influence of distinct, but often overlapping, control processes on the human motor system during action preparation.

Keywords: action preparation; action selection; decision making; motor cortex; motor excitability; motor inhibition; movement; premotor cortex.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Conflict, Psychological*
  • Cortical Excitability
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Evoked Potentials, Motor*
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Motor Activity
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Neural Inhibition
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Pyramidal Tracts / physiology
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation*