We investigated the changes in finger coordination and in finger force responses to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) applied over the motor cortex associated with a single practice session of an accurate ramp force production task. Subjects pressed with their index, middle and ring fingers onto three force transducers fixed to a rigid platform that was balanced on a narrow pivot under the middle finger. The task was to produce a smoothly increasing ramp of total force from 0 to 25 N over 4 s following a visual target. Subjects performed three brief series of trials without TMS (12 trials each) in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end of the experiment. The main part of the experiment involved 173 trials, and in each of them at random times in the ramp a suprathreshold TMS pulse was applied over the hand area of the contralateral motor cortex in order to evoke a twitch in the finger flexor muscles. At the end of the experiment the subjects also performed 12 constant force production trials, and TMS was unexpectedly applied in each trial. During the ramp force trials the amplitude of the response to TMS was largely independent of the force exerted at the time of stimulation, whereas in static holding trials the amplitude of the response increased with higher levels of background contraction. Over time subjects improved their overall tracking performance: the variance of the force trajectory (VarFTOT), as computed over sets of unperturbed trials, declined by 60% after the first 100 trials, but there was little additional improvement after the second 100 trials. Variance in the force finger space related to the total moment with respect to the pivot also showed a decline during the first half of practice and minimal further changes during the second half. In contrast, finger force variance that did not affect either total force or total moment showed no changes after the first 100 trials and a decline during the second 100 trials. This variance component quantified per finger was significantly larger than those related to the total force and total moment. The mean size of the TMS-induced phasic force increment decreased by 12% over the course of the 200 trials. The forces evoked in the index and ring fingers gradually became more equal, reducing the total moment with respect to the pivot and improving balance. We speculate that development of a relatively low twitch force with low total moment on the pivot made it easier for subjects to continue tracking after the TMS pulse. Such changes could well be correlated with the degree of corticospinal involvement in the task. The results suggest task specific, practice-related plastic changes in neural structures involved in the responses to TMS.
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