Pulsed Facilitation of Corticospinal Excitability by the Sensorimotor μ-Alpha Rhythm

J Neurosci. 2019 Dec 11;39(50):10034-10043. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1730-19.2019. Epub 2019 Nov 4.


Alpha oscillations (8-14 Hz) are assumed to gate information flow in the brain by means of pulsed inhibition; that is, the phasic suppression of cortical excitability and information processing once per alpha cycle, resulting in stronger net suppression for larger alpha amplitudes due to the assumed amplitude asymmetry of the oscillation. While there is evidence for this hypothesis regarding occipital alpha oscillations, it is less clear for the central sensorimotor μ-alpha rhythm. Probing corticospinal excitability via transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the primary motor cortex and the measurement of motor evoked potentials (MEPs), we have previously demonstrated that corticospinal excitability is modulated by both amplitude and phase of the sensorimotor μ-alpha rhythm. However, the direction of this modulation, its proposed asymmetry, and its underlying mechanisms remained unclear. We therefore used real-time EEG-triggered single- and paired-pulse TMS in healthy humans of both sexes to assess corticospinal excitability and GABA-A-receptor mediated short-latency intracortical inhibition (SICI) at rest during spontaneous high amplitude μ-alpha waves at different phase angles (peaks, troughs, rising and falling flanks) and compared them to periods of low amplitude (desynchronized) μ-alpha. MEP amplitude was facilitated during troughs and rising flanks, but no phasic suppression was observed at any time, nor any modulation of SICI. These results are best compatible with sensorimotor μ-alpha reflecting asymmetric pulsed facilitation but not pulsed inhibition of motor cortical excitability. The asymmetric excitability with respect to rising and falling flanks of the μ-alpha cycle further reveals that voltage differences alone cannot explain the impact of phase.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The pulsed inhibition hypothesis, which assumes that alpha oscillations actively inhibit neuronal processing in a phasic manner, is highly influential and has substantially shaped our understanding of these oscillations. However, some of its basic assumptions, in particular its asymmetry and inhibitory nature, have rarely been tested directly. Here, we explicitly investigated the asymmetry of modulation and its direction for the human sensorimotor μ-alpha rhythm. We found clear evidence of pulsed facilitation, but not inhibition, in the human motor cortex, challenging the generalizability of the pulsed inhibition hypothesis and advising caution when interpreting sensorimotor μ-alpha changes in the sensorimotor system. This study also demonstrates how specific assumptions about the neurophysiological underpinnings of cortical oscillations can be experimentally tested noninvasively in humans.

Keywords: alpha oscillation; motor cortex; motor evoked potential (MEP); real-time EEG-TMS; short-interval intracortical inhibition (SICI); transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alpha Rhythm / physiology*
  • Cortical Excitability / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials, Motor / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Pyramidal Tracts / physiology*
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
  • Young Adult