Intensity matters: high-intensity interval exercise enhances motor cortex plasticity more than moderate exercise

Sophie C. Andrews, Dylan Curtin, Ziarih Hawi, Jaeger Wongtrakun, Julie C. Stout, James P. Coxon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


A single bout of cardiovascular exercise can enhance plasticity in human cortex; however, the intensity required for optimal enhancement is debated. We investigated the effect of exercise intensity on motor cortex synaptic plasticity, using transcranial magnetic stimulation. Twenty healthy adults (Mage = 35.10 ± 13.25 years) completed three sessions. Measures of cortico-motor excitability (CME) and inhibition were obtained before and after a 20-min bout of either high-intensity interval exercise, moderate-intensity continuous exercise, or rest, and again after intermittent theta burst stimulation (iTBS). Results showed that high-intensity interval exercise enhanced iTBS plasticity more than rest, evidenced by increased CME and intracortical facilitation, and reduced intracortical inhibition. In comparison, the effect of moderate-intensity exercise was intermediate between high-intensity exercise and rest. Importantly, analysis of each participant's plasticity response profile indicated that high-intensity exercise increased the likelihood of a facilitatory response to iTBS. We also established that the brain-derived neurotrophic factor Val66Met polymorphism attenuated plasticity responses following high-intensity exercise. These findings suggest that high-intensity interval exercise should be considered not only when planning exercise interventions designed to enhance neuroplasticity, but also to maximize the therapeutic potential of non-invasive brain stimulation. Additionally, genetic profiling may enhance efficacy of exercise interventions for brain health.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)101-112
Number of pages12
JournalCerebral Cortex
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jan 2020


  • BDNF
  • GABA
  • neuroplasticity
  • theta burst stimulation
  • TMS

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