Stimulation of the cerebral cortex in the intact human subject

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One of the most fertile methods of investigating the brain is to stimulate a part of it electrically and observe the results. So far, however, use of the method in man has been restricted by the necessity of opening the skull surgically to apply the electrodes. Much could be done, both with healthy subjects and with neurological patients, if it were feasible to stimulate through electrodes on the scalp, although the localization of the stimulus on the cortex will always be much less sharp than with electrodes on the brain surface. In an intact man, however, the brain is protected from electricity by the skull and by the scalp, both of which normally offer considerable resistance. Furthermore, the cerebral cortex does not have a particularly low electrical threshold. It is probably for these reasons (despite an occasional contrary claim1) that attempts to stimulate the brain by applying stimuli from conventional stimulators to the scalp have been stopped by pain or have otherwise failed. These obstacles have now begun to yield. Recently, it was found that, on stimulating muscles in the human hand2 without any special preparation of the skin, the effective resistance fell to low values if brief but very high voltage shocks were used. Applying the same technique to the head, it has now proved possible at the first attempt to stimulate two areas of the human cortex, without undue discomfort.

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Merton, P., Morton, H. Stimulation of the cerebral cortex in the intact human subject. Nature 285, 227 (1980) doi:10.1038/285227a0

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