Corticospinal excitability during laughter: implications for cataplexy and the comparison with REM sleep atonia
Cataplexy is usually seen as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep atonia occurring at an inopportune moment. REM sleep atonia is the result of postsynaptic inhibition, i.e. inhibition of alpha motor neurones. Although this may explain the suppression of H-reflexes during REM sleep, cataplexy and laughter, it is not the only explanation. Presynaptic inhibition, in which afferent impulses are prevented from reaching motor neurones, is an alternative. Testing H-reflexes and magnetic-evoked potentials (MEPs) helps to tell them apart: in postsynaptic inhibition MEPs and H-reflexes change in tandem, while H-reflexes may decrease independent of MEPs with other inhibition modes. We studied motor inhibition during laughter, the strongest trigger for cataplexy. H-reflexes were evoked every 2 s in the soleus muscle in 10 healthy subjects watching comical video fragments. MEPs were evoked when H-reflexes decreased during laughter, and, as a control, when subjects did not laugh. Pairs of MEPs and the immediately preceding H-reflexes were studied. Compared with the control condition, laughter caused mean MEP area to increase by 60% (P = 0.006) and mean H-reflex amplitude to decrease by 33% (P = 0.008). This pattern proves that postsynaptic inhibition cannot have been the sole influence. The findings do not prove which mechanisms are involved; one possibility is that the decrease in H-reflex amplitude was the result of presynaptic inhibition, and that cortical and/or spinal facilitation accounted for increased MEPs. Regardless, the pattern differs fundamentally from the reported mechanism of REM sleep atonia. Existing scanty data on cataplexy suggest a pattern of H-reflexes and MEPs similar to that during laughter, but this needs further study.