Neuromodulatory Effects and Reproducibility of the Most Widely Used Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Protocols

SOURCE: PLoS ONE [Electronic Resource]. 18(6):e0286465, 2023.

AUTHORS: Magnuson J; Ozdemir MA; Mathieson E; Kirkman S; Passera B; Rampersad S; Dufour AB; Brooks D; Pascual-Leone A; Fried PJ; Shafi MM; Ozdemir RA

BACKGROUND: Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) is widely used in both research and clinical settings to modulate human brain function and behavior through the engagement of the mechanisms of plasticity. Based upon experiments using single-pulse TMS as a probe, the physiologic mechanism of these effects is often assumed to be via changes in cortical excitability, with 10 Hz rTMS increasing and 1 Hz rTMS decreasing the excitability of the stimulated region. However, the reliability and reproducibility of these rTMS protocols on cortical excitability across and within individual subjects, particularly in comparison to robust sham stimulation, have not been systematically examined.

OBJECTIVES: In a cohort of 28 subjects (39 +/- 16 years), we report the first comprehensive study to (1) assess the neuromodulatory effects of traditional 1 Hz and 10 Hz rTMS on corticospinal excitability against both a robust sham control, and two other widely used patterned rTMS protocols (intermittent theta burst stimulation, iTBS; and continuous theta burst stimulation, cTBS), and (2) determine the reproducibility of all rTMS protocols across identical repeat sessions.

RESULTS: At the group level, neither 1 Hz nor 10 Hz rTMS significantly modulated corticospinal excitability. 1 Hz and 10 Hz rTMS were also not significantly different from sham and both TBS protocols. Reproducibility was poor for all rTMS protocols except for sham. Importantly, none of the real rTMS and TBS protocols demonstrated greater neuromodulatory effects or reproducibility after controlling for potential experimental factors including baseline corticospinal excitability, TMS coil deviation and the number of individual MEP trials.

CONCLUSIONS: These results call into question the effectiveness and reproducibility of widely used rTMS techniques for modulating corticospinal excitability, and suggest the need for a fundamental rethinking regarding the potential mechanisms by which rTMS affects brain function and behavior in humans.