Transient inhibition of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex disrupts attention- based modulation of tactile stimuli at early stages of somatosensory processing.

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Damage to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) impairs gating of irrelevant sensory information at early cortical processing stages. We investigated how transient inhibition of DLPFC impacts early event-related potentials (ERPs) arising from relevant or irrelevant vibrotactile stimuli to the fingertips. Specifically, we hypothesized that suppression of DLPFC using continuous theta burst stimulation (cTBS) would result in reduced attention-based modulation of tactile ERPs generated at early stages of cortical somatosensory processing. Participants received vibrotactile stimulation to the second and fifth digit on the left hand and reported target stimuli on one digit only (as instructed) in one of three groups following: (1) cTBS over DLPFC (40 s; 600 pulses of 3 stimuli at 50 Hz repeated at 5 Hz using 80% of resting motor threshold for abductor pollicis brevis), (2) sham stimulation, or (3) no stimulation. ERP amplitudes for the P50, N70, P100, N140 and long latency positivity (LLP) were quantified for attended and non-attended trials at C4, CP4, and CP3 electrodes. There was no effect of attention on the P50 and N70 however the P100, N140 and LLP were modulated with attention. The P100 and LLP were significantly more positive during trials where the stimuli were attended to, while the N140 was enhanced for non-attended stimuli. Comparisons between groups revealed a reduction in P100 attention-based modulation for the cTBS group versus sham and no-stimulation groups. While the P100 was clearly reduced for non-attended stimuli relative to attended stimuli in the sham and no-stimulation groups, this effect was attenuated following cTBS. The reduction in attentional modulation of the P100 following cTBS suggests that the DLPFC contributes to filtering irrelevant somatosensory information at early cortical processing stages. Notably the influence of the DLPFC in attention-based modulation was evident even within digits of the same hand. The present results support the use of cTBS as an effective means of transiently suppressing DLPFC excitability.

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