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J Physiol. 2009 Dec 15;587(Pt 24):5831-42. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2009.181834.

Motor cortex plasticity induced by paired associative stimulation is enhanced in physically active individuals.

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School of Molecular and Biomedical Science, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia 5005, Australia.


Recent evidence indicates that regular physical activity enhances brain plasticity (i.e. the ability to reorganise neural connections) and improves neurocognitive function. However, the effect of regular physical activity on human motor cortex function is unknown. The purpose of this study was to examine motor cortex plasticity for a small hand muscle in highly active and sedentary individuals. Electromyographic recordings were obtained from the left abductor pollicis brevis (APB) muscle of 14 active and 14 sedentary subjects (aged 18-38 yrs). The extent of physical activity was assessed by questionnaire, where the physically active subjects performed >150 min per day moderate-to-vigorous aerobic activity on at least 5 days per week, whereas the sedentary group performed <20 min per day of physical activity on no more than 3 days per week. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the right hemisphere was used to assess changes in APB motor-evoked potentials (MEPs), input-output curve (IO curve), short-interval intracortical inhibition (SICI) and cortical silent period (CSP). Neuroplastic changes were induced using paired-associative stimulation (PAS), which consisted of 90 paired stimuli (0.05 Hz for 30 min) of median nerve electrical stimulation at the wrist followed 25 ms later by TMS to the hand area of motor cortex. The IO curve slope was 35% steeper in individuals with increased physical activity (combined before and after PAS, P < 0.05), suggesting increased motor cortex excitability, although there was no difference in SICI or CSP between groups. PAS induced an increase in MEP amplitude in the physically active subjects (54% increase compared with before, P < 0.01), but no significant facilitation in the sedentary subjects. We conclude that participation in regular physical activity may offer global benefits to motor cortex function that enhances neuroplasticity, which could improve motor learning and neurorehabilitation in physically active individuals.

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