OBJECTIVE: Transcranial double magnetic stimulation on the motor cortex was used to investigate central motor tract function in 16 patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, five with spinal muscular atrophy, and 16 age matched normal controls. METHODS: Surface EMG responses were recorded from the relaxed abductor pollicis brevis (APB) muscle. RESULTS: Responses to test stimuli were markedly attenuated by a subthreshold conditioning stimulus given at a condition-test (C-T) interval of 1-4 ms in normal controls and patients with spinal muscular atrophy, but attenuation was mild in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. In the normal controls this suppression was caused by activation of the intracortical inhibitory mechanism because responses to electrical test stimuli and the H wave were not suppressed by the same magnetic subthreshold conditioning stimulus. In amyotrophic lateral sclerosis the effect of the conditioning cortical stimulus on the H wave was also in the normal range. CONCLUSION: The intracortical inhibitory mechanism may be impaired in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.