Goal-directed action control comes into play when selecting between competing action alternatives. Response capture reflects the susceptibility of the motor system to incitement by task-irrelevant action impulses; the subsequent selective suppression of incorrect action impulses aims to counteract response capture and facilitate the desired response. The goal of this experiment was to clarify physiological mechanisms of response capture and suppression of action impulses during conflict at the level of the motor system. We administered single-pulse TMS at various intervals preceding speeded choice responses. The correct response side was designated by stimulus color, whereas stimulus location (which could match or conflict with response side) was to be ignored. TMS pulses triggered motor evoked potential and silent period, providing sensitive indices of cortico-spinal excitation and inhibition. Motor evoked potential data showed the typical progressive increase in cortico-spinal motor excitability leading up to the imminent (correct) response, which started earlier on nonconflict than on conflict trials. On conflict trials, the irrelevant stimulus location captured the incorrect response, as expressed by an early and transient rise in excitability. Silent period data showed that, already early during the response process, inhibition of the incorrect response was stronger for conflict than for nonconflict trials. Furthermore, inhibition decreased over time for nonconflict trials facilitating the imminent correct response while maintaining higher levels of inhibition on conflict trials. In conclusion, dynamic patterns of cortico-spinal excitability provide unique physiological evidence for the expression and selective suppression of action impulses captured by competing action alternatives.

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