Neuromodulatory non-invasive brain stimulation (NIBS) techniques are experimental therapies for improving motor function after stroke. The aim of neuromodulation is to enhance adaptive or suppress maladaptive processes of post-stroke reorganization. However, results on the effectiveness of these methods, which include transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), are mixed. The results of recent large clinical trials and meta-analyses range from no improvement in motor function (1, 2) to moderate improvement (1–6) at the group level. Though evidence supporting efficacy is better for TMS (7) than for tDCS (6), individual stroke patients' response to NIBS is nevertheless extremely variable (8–11). This is reminiscent of the development of other stroke therapies, such as thrombolysis and mechanical thrombectomy, where early studies were largely mixed before patient selection was refined (12, 13). NIBS in stroke faces a similar challenge of refining patient selection and individualizing protocols to determine its therapeutic potential. The variable response to NIBS in stroke patients is a byproduct of multiple factors that influence response to NIBS in healthy controls (14, 15), as well as factors that influence the response specifically in stroke patients (8). The former include factors such as age, gender, anatomical variability, intake of stimulant substances, and baseline neurophysiological state but also technical factors such as stimulation intensity, TMS coil orientation, and stimulation duration (16–18). Specifically in stroke patients, symptom severity, size and location of lesions, stroke etiology, and time from symptom onset to intervention influence the response to NIBS as well. Importantly, these different variability-causing factors interact to affect the response to NIBS, such as the potential amplification of inter-individual differences in brain anatomy (19, 20) by stroke lesions (21, 22). Such interactions make understanding the causes of NIBS response variability in stroke challenging. Although the need for individualized stimulation protocols in stroke patients is widely accepted, it is still unclear exactly how this will be achieved. At the very least, the factors influencing variability in healthy subjects should be controlled as much as possible through appropriate and careful study design (23) and checklist-based reporting of factors during data collection (24). To address the specific factors for stroke, patient selection for NIBS should be informed by pathophysiological processes. This requires that we know which processes are relevant, that we are capable of measuring them, and that we know the optimum timing and patient-related characteristics for treatment administration.
Ovadia-Caro, S., Khalil, A. A., Sehm, B., Villringer, A., Nikulin, V. V., & Nazarova, M. (2019). Predicting the response to noninvasive brain stimulation in stroke. Frontiers in Neurology, 10(APR). https://doi.org/10.3389/fneur.2019.00302