Sex differences in mild vascular cognitive impairment: A multimodal transcranial magnetic stimulation study

PLoS One. 2023 Mar 3;18(3):e0282751. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0282751. eCollection 2023.


Background: Sex differences in vascular cognitive impairment (VCI) at risk for future dementia are still debatable. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is used to evaluate cortical excitability and the underlying transmission pathways, although a direct comparison between males and females with mild VCI is lacking.

Methods: Sixty patients (33 females) underwent clinical, psychopathological, functional, and TMS assessment. Measures of interest consisted of: resting motor threshold, latency of motor evoked potentials (MEPs), contralateral silent period, amplitude ratio, central motor conduction time (CMCT), including the F wave technique (CMCT-F), short-interval intracortical inhibition (SICI), intracortical facilitation, and short-latency afferent inhibition, at different interstimulus intervals (ISIs).

Results: Males and females were comparable for age, education, vascular burden, and neuropsychiatric symptoms. Males scored worse at global cognitive tests, executive functioning, and independence scales. MEP latency was significantly longer in males, from both sides, as well CMCT and CMCT-F from the left hemisphere; a lower SICI at ISI of 3 ms from the right hemisphere was also found. After correction for demographic and anthropometric features, the effect of sex remained statistically significant for MEP latency, bilaterally, and for CMCT-F and SICI. The presence of diabetes, MEP latency bilaterally, and both CMCT and CMCT-F from the right hemisphere inversely correlated with executive functioning, whereas TMS did not correlate with vascular burden.

Conclusions: We confirm the worse cognitive profile and functional status of males with mild VCI compared to females and first highlight sex-specific changes in intracortical and cortico-spinal excitability to multimodal TMS in this population. This points to some TMS measures as potential markers of cognitive impairment, as well as targets for new drugs and neuromodulation therapies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anthropometry
  • Cognitive Dysfunction*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation*


  • 1-cyclohexyl-3-(2-(4-morpholinyl)ethyl)carbodiimide

Grants and funding

This study was partially funded by a grant of the Italian Ministry of Health-Ricerca Corrente 2023 (Oasi Research Institute-IRCCS, Troina, Italy: Linea di Ricerca 1). The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.