Sham-Derived Effects and the Minimal Reliability of Theta-burst Stimulation

Source: Scientific Reports. 11(1):21170, 2021 10 27.

Authors: Boucher PO; Ozdemir RA; Momi D; Burke MJ; Jannati A; Fried PJ; Pascual-Leone A; Shafi MM; Santarnecchi E

Abstract : Theta-burst stimulation (TBS) is a patterned form of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) that has been used to induce long-term modulation (plasticity) of corticospinal excitability in a drastically shorter duration protocol than conventional rTMS protocols. In this study we tested the reliability of the effects of two well defined TBS protocols, continuous TBS (cTBS) and intermittent TBS (iTBS), especially in relation to sham TBS, within and across the same 24 participants. All TBS protocols were repeated after approximately 1 month
to assess the magnitude and reliability of the modulatory effects of each TBS protocol. Baseline and post-TBS changes in motor evoked potentials (MEP-measure of corticospinal excitability) amplitudes were compared across the cTBS, iTBS and sham TBS protocols and between the initial and retest visits. Overall, across participants, at the initial visit, iTBS facilitated MEPs as compared to baseline excitability, with sham eliciting the same effect. cTBS did not show a significant suppression of excitability compared to baseline MEPs at either visit, and even facilitated MEPs above baseline excitability at a single time point during
the repeat visit. Otherwise, effects of TBS were generally diminished in the repeat visit, with iTBS and sham TBS replicating facilitation of MEPs above baseline excitability at similar time points. However, no protocol demonstrated consistent intra-individual modulation of corticospinal excitability upon retest. As the first study to test both iTBS and cTBS against sham TBS across repeat visits, our findings challenge the efficacy and reliability of TBS protocols and emphasize the importance of accounting for sham effects of TBS. Furthermore, given that therapeutic effects of TBS are hypothetically derived from consistent and repeated
modulation of brain activity, the non-replicability of plasticity and sham effects call into question these basic mechanisms.