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Testing spasticity mechanisms in chronic stroke before and after intervention with contralesional motor cortex 1 Hz rTMS and physiotherapy.

BACKGROUND: Previous studies showed that repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) reduces spasticity after stroke. However, clinical assessments like the modified Ashworth scale, cannot discriminate stretch reflex-mediated stiffness (spasticity) from passive stiffness components of resistance to muscle stretch. The mechanisms through which rTMS might influence spasticity are also not understood.

METHODS: We measured the effects of contralesional motor cortex 1 Hz rTMS (1200 pulses + 50 min physiotherapy: 3×/week, for 4-6 weeks) on spasticity of the wrist flexor muscles in 54 chronic stroke patients using a hand-held dynamometer for objective quantification of the stretch reflex response. In addition, we measured the excitability of three spinal mechanisms thought to be related to post-stroke spasticity: post-activation depression, presynaptic inhibition and reciprocal inhibition before and after the intervention. Effects on motor impairment and function were also assessed using standardized stroke-specific clinical scales.

RESULTS: The stretch reflex-mediated torque in the wrist flexors was significantly reduced after the intervention, while no change was detected in the passive stiffness. Additionally, there was a significant improvement in the clinical tests of motor impairment and function. There were no significant changes in the excitability of any of the measured spinal mechanisms.

CONCLUSIONS: We demonstrated that contralesional motor cortex 1 Hz rTMS and physiotherapy can reduce the stretch reflex-mediated component of resistance to muscle stretch without affecting passive stiffness in chronic stroke. The specific physiological mechanisms driving this spasticity reduction remain unresolved, as no changes were observed in the excitability of the investigated spinal mechanisms.

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