Standard intensities of transcranial alternating current stimulation over the motor cortex do not entrain corticospinal inputs to motor neurons

J Physiol. 2023 Aug;601(15):3187-3199. doi: 10.1113/JP282983. Epub 2022 Jul 13.


Transcranial alternating current stimulation (TACS) is commonly used to synchronize a cortical area and its outputs to the stimulus waveform, but gathering evidence for this based on brain recordings in humans is challenging. The corticospinal tract transmits beta oscillations (∼21 Hz) from the motor cortex to tonically contracted limb muscles linearly. Therefore, muscle activity may be used to measure the level of beta entrainment in the corticospinal tract due to TACS over the motor cortex. Here, we assessed whether TACS is able to modulate the neural inputs to muscles, which would provide indirect evidence for TACS-driven neural entrainment. In the first part of the study, we ran simulations of motor neuron (MN) pools receiving inputs from corticospinal neurons with different levels of beta entrainment. Results suggest that MNs are highly sensitive to changes in corticospinal beta activity. Then, we ran experiments on healthy human subjects (N = 10) in which TACS (at 1 mA) was delivered over the motor cortex at 21 Hz (beta stimulation), or at 7 Hz or 40 Hz (control conditions) while the abductor digiti minimi or the tibialis anterior muscle were tonically contracted. Muscle activity was measured using high-density electromyography, which allowed us to decompose the activity of pools of motor units innervating the muscles. By analysing motor unit pool activity, we observed that none of the TACS conditions could consistently alter the spectral contents of the common neural inputs received by the muscles. These results suggest that 1 mA TACS over the motor cortex given at beta frequencies does not entrain corticospinal activity. KEY POINTS: Transcranial alternating current stimulation (TACS) is commonly used to entrain the communication between brain regions. It is challenging to find direct evidence supporting TACS-driven neural entrainment due to the technical difficulties in recording brain activity during stimulation. Computational simulations of motor neuron pools receiving common inputs in the beta (∼21 Hz) band indicate that motor neurons are highly sensitive to corticospinal beta entrainment. Motor unit activity from human muscles does not support TACS-driven corticospinal entrainment.

Keywords: electromyography; motor neurons; movement; neuromodulation; transcranial alternating current stimulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Electromyography
  • Evoked Potentials, Motor / physiology
  • Humans
  • Motor Cortex* / physiology
  • Motor Neurons
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology
  • Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation*