Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2012

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Physical Rehabilitation Science

First Advisor

Shields, Richard K

First Committee Member

Cook, Thomas M

Second Committee Member

Morton, Susanne M

Third Committee Member

Segal, Neil

Fourth Committee Member

Williams, Glenn


The human central nervous system (CNS) is capable of significant architectural and physiological reorganization in response to environmental stimuli. Novel sensorimotor experiences stimulate neuronal networks to modify their intrinsic excitability and spatial connectivity within and between CNS structures. Early learning-induced adaptations in the primary motor cortex are thought to serve as a priming stimulus for long term CNS reorganization underlying long-lasting changes in motor skill. Recent animal and human studies suggest that whole body exercise and core temperature elevation as systemic stressors also recruit activity-dependent processes that prime the motor cortex, cerebellum, and hippocampus to process sensorimotor stimuli from the environment, enhancing overall CNS learning and performance. A primary goal of rehabilitation specialists is to evaluate and design activity-based intervention strategies that induce or enhance beneficial neuroplastic processes across the lifespan. As such, an investgation of the influence of physical, non-pharmacological interventions on cortical excitability, motor learning, and cognitive function provide the central theme of this dissertation.

The first study investigated the effects of a visually-guided motor learning task on motor cortex excitability at rest and during voluntary activation measured via transcranical magnetic stimulation (TMS). Motor learning significantly increased resting cortical excitability that was not accompanied by changes in excitability as a function of voluntary muscle activation. The cortical silent period, a measure of inhibition, increased after learning and was associated with the magnitude of learning at low activation. These findings suggest that separate excitatory and inhibitory mechanisms may influence motor output as a function of learning success. The following studies investigated the influence of systemic whole-body thermal stress on motor cortex excitability, motor learning and cognitive performance. We established the reliability of a novel TMS cortical mapping procedure to study neurophysiological responses after whole-body heat stress. Heat stress significantly potentiated motor cortex excitability, though acute motor learning and cognitive test performance did not differ between subjects receiving heat stress and control subjects. Future research is needed to delineate the potential of whole body heat stress as a therapeutic modality to influence central nervous system plasticity and performance.


Cortical Excitability, Heat Stress, Motor Learning, Plasticity, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation


viii, 109 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 95-109).


Copyright 2012 Andrew Edwards Littmann