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Crit Rev Oral Biol Med. 2001;12(1):76-91.

Morphology and physiology of masticatory muscle motor units.

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  • 1Department of Functional Anatomy, Academic Center for Dentistry Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


Motor unit territories in masticatory muscles appear to be smaller than territories in limb muscles, and this would suggest a more localized organization of motor control in masticatory muscles. Motor unit cross-sectional areas show a wide range of values, which explains the large variability of motor unit force output. The proportion of motor unit muscle fibers containing more than one myosin heavy-chain (MHC) isoform is considerably larger in masticatory muscles than in limb and trunk muscles. This explains the continuous range of contraction speeds found in masticatory muscle motor units. Hence, in masticatory muscles, a finer gradation of force and contraction speeds is possible than in limb and in trunk muscles. The proportion of slow-type motor units is relatively large in deep and anterior masticatory muscle regions, whereas more fast-type units are more common in the superficial and posterior muscle regions. Muscle portions with a high proportion of slow-type motor units are better equipped for a finer control of muscle force and a larger resistance to fatigue during chewing and biting than muscle portions with a high proportion of fast units. For the force modulation, masticatory muscles rely mostly on recruitment gradation at low force levels and on rate gradation at high force levels. Henneman's principle of an orderly recruitment of motor units has also been reported for various masticatory muscles. The presence of localized motor unit territories and task-specific motor unit activity facilitates differential control of separate muscle portions. This gives the masticatory muscles the capacity of producing a large diversity of mechanical actions. In this review, the properties of masticatory muscle motor units are discussed.

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