The acute effects of motor imagery and cervical transcutaneous electrical stimulation on manual dexterity and neural excitability

ANTONIO CAPOZIO, Ronaldo Ichiyama, Sarah L. Astill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (journal)peer-review


Transcutaneous electrical stimulation (TCES) of the spinal cord induces changes in spinal excitability. Motor imagery (MI) elicits plasticity in the motor cortex. It has been suggested that plasticity occurring in both cortical and spinal circuits might underlie the improvements in performance observed when training is combined with stimulation. We investigated the acute effects of cervical TCES and MI delivered in isolation or combined on corticospinal excitability, spinal excitability and manual performance. Participants (N = 17) completed three sessions during which they engaged in 20 min of: 1) MI, listening to an audio recording instructing to complete the purdue pegboard test (PPT) of manual performance; 2) TCES at the spinal level of C5–C6; 3) MI + TCES, listening to the MI script while receiving TCES. Before and after each condition, we measured corticospinal excitability via transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) at 100% and 120% motor threshold (MT), spinal excitability via single-pulse TCES and manual performance with the PPT. Manual performance was not improved by MI, TCES or MI + TCES. Corticospinal excitability assessed at 100% MT intensity increased in hand and forearm muscles after MI and MI + TCES, but not after just TCES. Conversely, corticospinal excitability assessed at 120% MT intensity was not affected by any of the conditions. The effects on spinal excitability depended on the recorded muscle: it increased after all conditions in biceps brachii (BB) and flexor carpi radialis (FCR); did not change after any conditions in the abductor pollicis brevis (APB); increased after TCES and MI + TCES, but not after just MI in the extensor carpi radialis (ECR). These findings suggest that MI and TCES increase the excitability of the central nervous system through different but complementary mechanisms, inducing changes in the excitability of spinal and cortical circuits. MI and TCES can be used in combination to modulate spinal/cortical excitability, an approach particularly relevant for people with limited residual dexterity who cannot engage in motor practice.
Original languageEnglish
Article number108613
Pages (from-to)1-9
Number of pages9
Issue number2023
Early online date5 Jun 2023
Publication statusPublished - 13 Aug 2023


  • Transcutaneous electrical stimulation
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation
  • Motor imagery
  • Purdue pegboard test
  • EMG


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