Motor cortex inputs at the optimum phase of beta cortical oscillations undergo more rapid and less variable corticospinal propagation.
Why does communication in the brain involve rhythmic changes in electrical activity called oscillations? Here, we show that certain oscillations give brief ‘windows of opportunity’ in which incoming messages are passed on more faithfully and rapidly than otherwise. These benefits can be maintained over widespread nerve circuits, and so timing messages in oscillations can make communication more effective.
Brain oscillations involve rhythmic fluctuations of neuronal excitability and may play a crucial role in neural communication. The human corticomuscular system is characterized by beta activity and is readily probed by transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). TMS inputs arriving at the excitable phase of beta oscillations in the motor cortex are known to lead to muscle responses of greater amplitude. Here we explore two other possible manifestations of rhythmic excitability in the beta band; windows of reduced response variability and shortened latency. We delivered single-pulse TMS to the motor cortex of healthy human volunteers (10 females and 7 males) during electroencephalography recordings made at rest. TMS delivered at a particular phase of the beta oscillation benefited from not only stronger, but also less variable and more rapid transmission, as evidenced by the greater amplitude, lower coefficient of variation, and shorter latency of motor evoked potentials. Thus, inputs aligned to the optimal phase of the beta EEG in the motor cortex enjoy transmission amplitude gain, but may also benefit from less variability and shortened latencies at subsequent synapses. Neuronal phase may therefore impact corticospinal communication. Brain oscillations involve rhythmic fluctuations of neuronal excitability. Therefore, motor responses to transcranial magnetic stimulation are larger when a cortical input arrives at a particular phase of the beta activity in the motor cortex. Here, we demonstrate that inputs to corticospinal neurons which coincide with windows of higher excitability also benefit from more rapid and less variable corticospinal transmission. This shortening of latency and increased reproducibility may confer additional advantage to inputs at specific phases. Moreover, these benefits are conserved despite appreciable corticospinal conduction delays.