Sustained increase of somatosensory cortex excitability by tactile coactivation studied by paired median nerve stimulation in humans correlates with perceptual gain


  • O. Höffken and M. Veit contributed equally to this work.

Corresponding author H. R. Dinse: Institute for Neuroinformatics, Theoretical Biology, Neural Plasticity Lab, Ruhr-University, 44780 Bochum, Germany. Email:


Cortical excitability can be reliably assessed by means of paired-pulse stimulation techniques. Recent studies demonstrated particularly for motor and visual cortex that cortical excitability is systematically altered following the induction of learning processes or during the development of pathological symptoms. A recent tactile coactivation protocol developed by Godde and coworkers showed that improvement of tactile performance in humans can be achieved also without training through passive stimulation on a time scale of a few hours. Tactile coactivation evokes plastic changes in somatosensory cortical areas as measured by blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) activation in fMRI or SEP-dipole localization, which correlated with the individual gain in performance. To demonstrate changes in excitability of somatosensory cortex after tactile coactivation, we combined assessment of tactile performance with recordings of paired-pulse SEPs after electrical median nerve stimulation of both the right coactivated and left control hand at ISIs of 30 and 100 ms before, 3 h after and 24 h after tactile coactivation. Amplitudes and latencies of the first and second cortical N20/P25 response components were calculated. For the coactivated hand, we found significantly lowered discrimination thresholds and significantly reduced paired-pulse ratios (second N20/P25 response/first N20/P25 response) at an ISI of 30 ms after tactile coactivation indicating enhanced cortical excitability. No changes in paired-pulse behaviour were observed for ISIs of 100 ms. Both psychophysical and cortical effects recovered to baseline 24 h after tactile coactivation. The individual increase of excitability correlated with the individual gain in discrimination performance. For the left control hand we found no effects of tactile coactivation on paired-pulse behaviour and discrimination threshold. Our results indicate that changes in cortical excitability are modified by tactile coactivation and were scaled with the degree of improvement of the individual perceptual learning. Conceivably, changes of cortical excitability seem to constitute an additional important marker and mechanism underlying plastic reorganization.