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Biomechanical organization of single motor units in two multi-tendoned muscles of the cat distal forelimb

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In anesthetized cats single motor units (MUs) of the extensor carpi ulnaris (ECU) and extensor digitorum communis (EDC) muscles were selectively activated by stimulation of cervical ventral root filaments. The distribution of force developed by single MUs at the four distal tendons of the EDC muscle and at three portions of the distal tendon of the ECU muscle was analysed. In general, single MUs of both muscles distributed force over all tendons in a unimodal pattern, with the maximal force levels generated at one specific tendon which was termed the best-tendon. Distributions of force were quantitatively described by a parameter representing the mean direction of force output (output-index) and a further one representing the dispersion of force over the distal tendons (divergence). Generally, these parameters and the best-tendon remained stable when a MU was stimulated at different frequencies, but varied from MU to MU. Despite the general stability of the force distribution, slight systematic changes were regularly found in EDC MUs, when they developed a higher amount of force due to a higher frequency of stimulation: the relative amount of force at the best-tendon increased; e.g. the MUs got more selective for the best-tendon. These changes were partly due to overcoming mechanical cross-coupling between neighbouring compartments of the EDC muscle. Such changes of force distribution were only found in a part of the ECU MUs; other ECU MUs did not change their force distribution at all or became less selective for the best-tendon. The phenomenon that MUs of multi-tendoned muscles distribute their force output to the distal tendons in specific patterns is probably due to mechanical partitioning of the parent muscles: the localization of spatial territories of MUs within different anatomical muscle compartments should correspond to the best-tendon. Complex mechanisms allowing passive transmission of force from limited territories along the transverse axis of both muscles must be assumed in order to explain why most MUs act on all tendons and why force distributions change with increasing stimulus frequency. In addition, specific relations between unit type and force distributions were found within both muscles. Fatigue-resistant EDC MUs have broader force distributions than fatigue-sensitive EDC MUs and slow ECU MUs were found to act predominantly on the most ulnar part of the distal tendon. These biomechanical properties of MUs are discussed as supporting the specific functions of the respective muscles.

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Correspondence to N. Fritz.

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Fritz, N., Schmidt, C. & Yamaguchi, T. Biomechanical organization of single motor units in two multi-tendoned muscles of the cat distal forelimb. Exp Brain Res 88, 411–421 (1992). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02259116

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Key words

  • Motor unit
  • Multi-tendoned muscle
  • Mechanical partitioning
  • Mechanical cross-coupling
  • Cat