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Intensity of acute aerobic exercise but not aerobic fitness impacts on corticospinal excitability

MacDonald, Monica A., Khan, Hawazin, Kraeutner, Sarah N., Usai, Francesco, Rogers, Emily A., Kimmerly, Derek S., Dechman, Gail, Boe, Shaun G.
Applied physiology, nutrition and metabolism 2019 v.44 no.8 pp. 869-878
exercise, heart rate, learning, metabolism, neuroplasticity, transcranial magnetic stimulation
Aerobic exercise (AE) modulates cortical excitability. It can alter both corticospinal excitability and intra-cortical networks, which has implications for its use as a tool to facilitate processes such as motor learning, where increased levels of excitability are conducive to the induction of neural plasticity. Little is known about how different intensities of AE modulate cortical excitability or how individual-level characteristics impact on it. Therefore, we investigated whether AE intensities, lower than those previously employed, would be effective in increasing cortical excitability. We also examined whether the aerobic fitness of individual participants was related to the magnitude of change in AE-induced cortical excitability. In both experiments we employed transcranial magnetic stimulation to probe corticospinal excitability before and after AE. We show that 20 min of continuous moderate- (40% and 50% of heart rate reserve, HRR), but not low- (30% HRR) intensity AE was effective at increasing corticospinal excitability. We also found that while we observed increased corticospinal excitability following 20 min of continuous moderate-intensity (50% HRR) AE, aerobic fitness was not related to the magnitude of change. Our results suggest that there is a lower bound intensity of AE that is effective at driving changes in cortical excitability, and that while individual-level characteristics are important predictors of response to AE, aerobic fitness is not. Overall these findings have implication for the way that AE is used to facilitate processes such as motor learning, where increased levels of cortical excitability and plasticity are favourable.