This article reviews the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) over the motor cortex to make estimates of the level of voluntary drive to muscles. The method, described in 2003 (Todd et al. J Physiol 551:661-71), uses a TMS pulse to produce descending corticospinal volleys which synaptically activate motoneurones, resulting in a muscle twitch. Linear regression of the superimposed twitch amplitude and voluntary force (or torque) can generate an 'estimated' resting twitch for muscles involved in a task. This procedure has most commonly been applied to elbow flexors, but also knee extensors and other muscle groups. Data from 44 papers using the method were tabulated. We identify and discuss five major technical challenges, and the frequency with which they are addressed. The technical challenges include inadvertent activation of the cortical representation of antagonist muscles, the role of antagonist torques at the studied joint, uncertainty about the effectiveness of the TMS pulse in activating the motoneurone pool, the linearity of the voluntary force (or torque) and superimposed twitch relationship, and variability in the TMS-evoked EMG and force/torque responses. The ideal situation in which the descending corticospinal volleys recruit all of the agonist motoneurones and none of the antagonist motoneurones is unlikely to ever occur, and hence results must be carefully examined to assess the authenticity of the voluntary activation estimates in the context of the experimental design. A partial compromise lies in the choice of stimulus intensity. We also identify aspects of the procedure that require further investigation.
- voluntary activation
- transcranial magnetic stimulation
- motor cortex
- Copyright © 2016, Journal of Applied Physiology