Many types of non-invasive brain stimulation alter corticospinal excitability (CSE). Paired associative stimulation (PAS) has attracted particular attention as its effects ostensibly adhere to Hebbian principles of neural plasticity. In prototypical form, a single electrical stimulus is directed to a peripheral nerve in close temporal contiguity with transcranial magnetic stimulation delivered to the contralateral primary motor cortex (M1). Repeated pairing of the two discrete stimulus events (i.e. association) over an extended period either increases or decreases the excitability of corticospinal projections from M1, contingent on the interstimulus interval. We studied a novel form of associative stimulation, consisting of brief trains of peripheral afferent stimulation paired with short bursts of high frequency (≥80 Hz) transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) over contralateral M1. Elevations in the excitability of corticospinal projections to the forearm were observed for a range of tACS frequency (80, 140 and 250 Hz), current (1, 2 and 3 mA) and duration (500 and 1000 ms) parameters. The effects were at least as reliable as those brought about by PAS or transcranial direct current stimulation. When paired with tACS, muscle tendon vibration also induced elevations of CSE. No such changes were brought about by the tACS or peripheral afferent stimulation alone. In demonstrating that associative effects are expressed when the timing of the peripheral and cortical events is not precisely circumscribed, these findings suggest that multiple cellular pathways may contribute to a long term potentiation-type response. Their relative contributions will differ depending on the nature of the induction protocol that is used.
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