Introduction: Recent studies suggest that repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) improves functional movement disorders (FMDs), but the underlying mechanisms are unclear. The objective was to determine whether the beneficial action of TMS in patients with FMDs is due to cortical neuromodulation or rather to a cognitive-behavioral effect.
Method: Consecutive patients with FMDs underwent repeated low-frequency (0.25 Hz) magnetic stimulation over the cortex contralateral to the symptoms or over the spinal roots [root magnetic stimulation (RMS)] homolateral to the symptoms. The patients were randomized into two groups: group 1 received RMS on day 1 and TMS on day 2, while group 2 received the same treatments in reverse order. We blindly assessed the severity of movement disorders before and after each stimulation session.
Results: We studied 33 patients with FMDs (dystonia, tremor, myoclonus, Parkinsonism, or stereotypies). The median symptom duration was 2.9 years. The magnetic stimulation sessions led to a significant improvement (>50%) in 22 patients (66%). We found no difference between TMS and RMS.
Conclusion: We suggest that the therapeutic benefit of TMS in patients with FMDs is due more to a cognitive-behavioral effect than to cortical neuromodulation.
Individuals with functional movement disorders (FMDs) account for 3–20% of all patients seen in movement-disorder clinics (1–3). There is no consensus treatment for FMDs (4–6). These movement disorders are not due to irreversible brain damage but their outcome is nonetheless poor: symptoms are persistent or worse after 1.5–7 years of follow-up in between 44 and 90% of patients (6, 7). FMDs generate major healthcare costs, as well as indirect costs due to unemployment and disability (8).
Recent studies suggest a beneficial effect of repeated supraliminal low-frequency transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) (i.e., TMS ≤ 1 Hz) on functional motor symptoms (9–14) [Ref. (15) for a review]. Among these studies, only one included a blinded assessment (11), and only one included a control group (sham treatment) (9). Focusing on FMDs more specifically, two studies showed a beneficial effect of supraliminal low-frequency TMS, with a mean improvement rate of 67% (11) and 97% (13). It is unclear whether the therapeutic benefit is due to cortical neuromodulation, i.e., to changes in cortical excitability and in connectivity between brain areas (15, 16). The alternative hypothesis is a cognitive-behavioral effect, a therapeutic effect that is linked to suggestion and/or motor relearning.
To address this issue, we blindly compared the therapeutic effect of repeated TMS and repeated root magnetic stimulation (RMS) in patients with FMDs. RMS was chosen as the control treatment to mimic TMS-induced movement without directly stimulating the cortex.