Somatosensory inputs to the primary sensory cortex (S1) after median nerve stimulation include temporally overlapping parallel processing, as reflected by standard low-frequency somatosensory-evoked potentials (LF-SEPs) and high-frequency SEPs (HF-SEPs), the latter being more sensitive to arousal and to other rapid adaptive changes. Experimental data suggest that cortical HF-SEPs are formed by two successive pre- and postsynaptic components, respectively, generated in the terminal part of thalamo-cortical radiation (early burst) and in specialized neuronal pools within S1 (later burst).
In eight healthy subjects, slow (1 Hz) or rapid (10 Hz) repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulations (rTMS), which are known to induce opposite changes on cortical excitability, applied on S1 did not modify LF-SEPs, while HF-SEPs showed a series of dissociate changes in the early and later high-frequency burst, moreover occurring with a different time-course. Slow rTMS caused an immediate and lasting decrease of the later burst activity, coupled with an immediate increase of the earlier part of the burst, suggesting that inhibition of cortical excitability triggered opposite, compensatory effects at subcortical levels; rapid rTMS induced a delayed increase of later HF-SEPs, leaving unaltered the earlier subcortical burst.
Findings causally demonstrate that LF- and HF-SEPs reflect two distinct functional pathways for somatosensory input processing, and that early and late high-frequency burst do actually reflect the activity of different generators, as suggested by experimental data. Possible underlying neurophysiological phenomena are discussed.