1. To find out whether muscle afferents influence the excitability of corticospinal projections to antagonist muscles, we studied sixteen healthy subjects and one patient with a focal brain lesion. 2. Using transcranial magnetic and electrical brain stimulation we tested the excitability of corticomotoneuronal connections to right forearm muscles at rest after conditioning stimulation of the median nerve at the elbow. Somatosensory potentials evoked by median nerve stimulation were also recorded in each subject. 3. Test stimuli delivered at 13-19 ms after median nerve stimulation significantly inhibited EMG responses elicited in forearm extensor muscles by transcranial magnetic stimulation, but did not inhibit responses to electrical stimulation. In contrast, magnetically and electrically elicited responses in forearm flexor muscles were suppressed to the same extent. 4. The higher the intensity of the test shocks, the smaller was the amount of median nerve-elicited inhibition. Inhibition in extensor muscles was also smaller during tonic wrist extension, or if the induced electrical stimulating current in the brain flowed from posterior to anterior over the motor strip rather than vice versa. Test responses evoked by magnetic transcranial stimulation in the first dorsal interosseous and in brachioradialis muscles were not inhibited after median nerve stimulation at the elbow. Stimulation of digital nerves failed to inhibit motor potentials in extensor muscles. 5. Test stimuli delivered at 15 and 17 ms after radial nerve stimulation significantly inhibited EMG responses elicited in forearm flexor muscles by magnetic transcranial stimulation. 6. In the patient with a focal thalamic lesion, who had dystonic postures and an absent N20 component of the somatosensory-evoked potentials but normal strength, median nerve stimulation failed to inhibit magnetically evoked responses in forearm extensor muscles. 7. We propose that activation of median nerve muscle afferents can suppress the excitability of cortical areas controlling the antagonist forearm extensor muscles acting on the hand. The inhibitory effect occurs at short latency and might assist spinal pathways mediating reciprocal inhibition by contrasting the co-activation of antagonistic pools of corticospinal cells.
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