Motor unit activity during long-lasting intermittent muscle contractions in humans

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Changes accompanying long-lasting intermittent muscle contractions (30%–50% of the maximal) were investigated by tracing the activity of 38 motor units (MU) of the human biceps brachii muscle recorded from fine-wire branched electrodes. The motor task was a continuous repetition of ramp-and-hold cycles of isometric flexion contractions. During ramp-up phases a significant decline in recruitment thresholds was found with no changes in the discharge pattern. During ramp-down phases the unchanged mean value of derecruitment thresholds during the task was accompanied by increased duration of the last two interspike intervals (ISI). These findings would suggest that during fatigue development the main compensatory mechanism during ramp-up contractions is space coding while for ramp-down contractions it is rate coding. During the steady-state phases the mean value of ISI, as well as the firing variability, had increased by the end of the task in most of the MU investigated . In addition 17 recruited MU were also investigated. These units revealed a lower initial discharge rate and a faster decrease in the mean discharge rate with the development of fatigue. The gradual reduction of the recruitment threshold of already active MU and the recruitment of new units demonstrated an increased excitability of the motorneuron pool during fatigue. A typical recruitment pattern (a first short ISI followed by a long one) was observed during ramp-up contractions in units active from the very beginning of the task, as well as during sustained contractions at the onset of the stable discharge of the additionally recruited MU.

Accepted: 23 September 1997