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Exp Brain Res. 2004 Jan;154(2):218-25. Epub 2003 Oct 8.

Changes in corticospinal motor excitability induced by non-motor linguistic tasks.

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Sobell Department of Motor Neuroscience and Movement Disorders, Institute of Neurology, University College London, UK.


The excitability of the corticospinal motor pathways to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) can be differentially modulated by a variety of motor tasks. However, there is emerging evidence that linguistic tasks may alter excitability of the corticospinal motor pathways also. In this study we evaluated the effect of several movement-free, low-level linguistic processes involved in reading and writing on the excitability of the bilateral corticospinal motor pathways in a group of right-handed subjects. The study included two series of tasks, visual searching/matching and imaginal writing/drawing. The tasks were designed to roughly correspond with elemental aspects of the reading and writing, grapheme recognition and grapheme generation, respectively. Each task series included separate blocks with different task targets: letters, digits, semantically easy-to-code (i.e. geometric) shapes, and semantically hard-to-code shapes, as well as control blocks with no task. During task performance, TMS was delivered randomly over the hand area of either the left or right motor cortex and the modulation of the excitability of the corticospinal motor pathways was measured bilaterally through changes of the size of the motor-evoked potential (MEP) induced in the relaxed right and left first dorsal interosseous (FDI) muscles. We found that the size of the MEP in hand muscles increased during visual searching/matching tasks, particularly when targets were letters or geometric shapes, and the increase was significant for the dominant hand (left hemisphere) only. No such consistent effects were seen across subjects during imaginal tasks. This study provides evidence that even the performance of certain low-level linguistic tasks can modulate the excitability of the corticospinal motor pathways, particularly those originating from the left (dominant) hemisphere, despite the absence of overt motor activity. Moreover, in the light of the recently increased awareness of the role of "mirror neurons" in perception, the results suggest that activation of motor circuits used in generation of the written output may be an essential part of the perception of the written material as well. Understanding the patterns of task-dependent changes in excitability of the corticospinal motor pathways will provide insights into the organisation of central nervous system functional networks involved in linguistic processes, and may also be useful for future development of novel approaches to rehabilitation therapy of linguistic and motor functions.

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