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PLoS One. 2013 Sep 5;8(9):e73813. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0073813. eCollection 2013.

Time- and task-dependent non-neural effects of real and sham TMS.

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Department of Cognitive Neuroscience, Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands ; Maastricht Brain Imaging Center, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands.


Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is widely used in experimental brain research to manipulate brain activity in humans. Next to the intended neural effects, every TMS pulse produces a distinct clicking sound and sensation on the head which can also influence task performance. This necessitates careful consideration of control conditions in order to ensure that behavioral effects of interest can be attributed to the neural consequences of TMS and not to non-neural effects of a TMS pulse. Surprisingly, even though these non-neural effects of TMS are largely unknown, they are often assumed to be unspecific, i.e. not dependent on TMS parameters. This assumption is inherent to many control strategies in TMS research but has recently been challenged on empirical grounds. Here, we further develop the empirical basis of control strategies in TMS research. We investigated the time-dependence and task-dependence of the non-neural effects of TMS and compared real and sham TMS over vertex. Critically, we show that non-neural TMS effects depend on a complex interplay of these factors. Although TMS had no direct neural effects, both pre- and post-stimulus TMS time windows modulated task performance on both a sensory detection task and a cognitive angle judgment task. For the most part, these effects were quantitatively similar across tasks but effect sizes were clearly different. Moreover, the effects of real and sham TMS were almost identical with interesting exceptions that shed light on the relative contribution of auditory and somato-sensory aspects of a TMS pulse. Knowledge of such effects is of critical importance for the interpretation of TMS experiments and helps deciding what constitutes an appropriate control condition. Our results broaden the empirical basis of control strategies in TMS research and point at potential pitfalls that should be avoided.

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