Activation of type-identified motor units during centrally evoked contractions in the cat medial gastrocnemius muscle II. Motoneuron firing-rate modulation

K. E. Tansey, B. R. Botterman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


1. The aim of this study was to examine the nature of motoneuron firing-rate modulation in type-identified motor units during smoothly graded contractions of the cat medial gastrocnemius (MG) muscle evoked by stimulation of the mesencephalic locomotor region (MLR). Motoneuron discharge patterns, firing rates, and the extent of firing-rate modulation in individual units were studied, as was the extent of concomitant changes in firing rates within pairs of simultaneously active units. 2. In 21 pairs of simultaneously active motor units, studied during 41 evoked contractions, the motoneurons' discharge rates and patterns were measured by processing the cells' recorded action potentials through windowing devices and storing their timing in computer memory. Once recruited, most motoneurons increased their firing rates over a limited range of increasing muscle tension and then maintained a fairly constant firing rate as muscle force continued to rise. Most motoneurons also decreased their firing rates over a slightly larger, but still limited, range of declining muscle force before they were derecruited. Although this was the most common discharge pattern recorded, several other interesting patterns were also seen. 3. The mean firing rate for slow twitch (type S) motor units (27.8 imp/s, 5,092 activations) was found to be significantly different from the mean firing rate for fast twitch (type F) motor units (48.4 imp/s, 11,272 activations; Student's t-test, P < 0.001). There was no significant difference between the mean firing rates of fast twitch, fatigue-resistant (type FR) and fast twitch, fatigable (type FF) motor units. When the relationship between motoneuron firing rate and whole-muscle force was analyzed, it was noted that, in general, smaller, lower threshold motor units began firing at lower rates and reached lower peak firing rates than did larger, higher threshold motor units. These results confirm both earlier experimental observations and predictions made by other investigators on the basis of computer simulations of the cat MG motor pool, but are in contrast to motor-unit discharge behavior recorded in some human motor-unit studies. 4. The extent of concomitant changes in firing rate within pairs of simultaneously active motor units was examined to estimate the extent of simultaneous motoneuron firing-rate modulation across the motoneuron pool. A smoothed (5 point sliding average) version of the two motoneurons' instantaneous firing rates was plotted against each other, and the slope and statistical significance of the relationship was determined. In 16 motor-unit pairs, the slope of the motoneurons' firing-rate relationship was significantly distinct from 0. Parallel firing-rate modulation (<10-fold difference in firing rate change reflected by a slope of >0.1) was noted only in pairs containing motor units of like physiological type and then only if they were of similar recruitment threshold. 5. Other investigators have demonstrated that changes in a motoneuron's "steady-state" firing rate predictably reflect changes in the amount of effective synaptic current that cell is receiving. The finding in the present study of limited parallel firing-rate modulation between simultaneously active motoneurons would suggest that changes in the synaptic drive to the various motoneurons of the pool is unevenly distributed. This finding, in addition to the findings of orderly motor-unit recruitment and the relationship between motor-unit recruitment threshold and motoneuron firing rate, cannot be adequately accommodated for by the existing models of the synaptic organization in motoneuron pools. Therefore a new model of the synaptic organization within the motoneuron pool has been proposed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)38-50
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1996

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Physiology


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