Differences in Brain Structure and Theta-burst Stimulation-Induced Plasticity Implicate the Corticomotor System in Loss of Function After Musculoskeletal Injury

Source: Journal of Neurophysiology. 125(4):1006-1021, 2021 04 01.

Authors: Flanagan SD; Proessl F; Dunn-Lewis C; Sterczala AJ; Connaboy C; Canino MC; Beethe AZ; Eagle SR; Szivak TK; Onate JA; Volek JS; Maresh CM; Kaeding CC;
Kraemer WJ

Abstract: Traumatic musculoskeletal injury (MSI) may involve changes in corticomotor structure and function, but direct evidence is needed. To determine the corticomotor basis of MSI, we examined interactions among skeletomotor function, corticospinal excitability, corticomotor structure (cortical thickness and white matter microstructure), and intermittent theta burst stimulation (iTBS)-induced plasticity. Nine women with unilateral anterior cruciate ligament rupture (ACL) 3.2 +/- 1.1 yr prior to the study and 11 matched controls (CON) completed an MRI session followed by an offline plasticity-probing protocol using a randomized, sham-controlled, double-blind, cross-over study design. iTBS was applied to the injured (ACL) or nondominant (CON) motor cortex leg representation (M1LEG) with
plasticity assessed based on changes in skeletomotor function and corticospinal excitability compared with sham iTBS. The results showed persistent loss of function in the injured quadriceps, compensatory adaptations in the uninjured quadriceps and both hamstrings, and injury-specific increases in corticospinal excitability. Injury was associated with lateralized reductions in paracentral lobule thickness, greater centrality of nonleg corticomotor regions, and increased primary
somatosensory cortex leg area inefficiency and eccentricity. Individual responses to iTBS were consistent with the principles of homeostatic metaplasticity; corresponded to injury-related differences in skeletomotor function, corticospinal excitability, and corticomotor structure; and suggested that corticomotor adaptations involve both hemispheres. Moreover, iTBS normalized skeletomotor function and corticospinal excitability in ACL. The results of this investigation directly confirm corticomotor involvement in chronic loss of function after traumatic MSI, emphasize the sensitivity of the corticomotor system to skeletomotor events and behaviors, and raise the possibility that brain-targeted
therapies could improve recovery. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Traumatic musculoskeletal injuries may involve adaptive changes in the brain that contribute to loss of function. Our combination of neuroimaging and theta burst transcranial magnetic stimulation (iTBS) revealed distinct patterns of iTBS-induced plasticity that normalized differences in muscle and brain function evident years after unilateral knee ligament rupture. Individual responses to iTBS corresponded to injury-specific differences in brain structure and physiological activity, depended on skeletomotor deficit severity, and suggested that corticomotor adaptations involve both hemispheres.