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J Physiol. 1978 Apr;277:131-42.

Muscle spindle activity in man during shortening and lengthening contractions.


1. The responses of forty-one muscle spindle endings, mostly in tibialis anterior, were studied in human subjects during voluntary movements of the ankle joint performed at various speeds against different external loads. 2. During slow shortening contractions, the discharge rates of spindle endings in the contracting muscle accelerated after the appearance of the first e.m.g. potentials but before sufficient force had been generated to move the limb. With some endings, the discharge rate decreased during the shortening movement while the e.m.g. activity was increasing, but it always remained higher than before the onset of contraction. If the speed of the movement was increased fewer spindle discharges were seen during muscle shortening. If the shortening contraction was opposed by an external load, so that greater effort was required to perform the same movement, more discharges were seen and the discharge pattern became less modulated by the change in muscle length. 3. These findings indicate that during shortening contractions the fusimotor system is activated together with the skeletomotor system. However, the fusimotor drive is generally insufficient to maintain a significant spindle discharge unless movement is slow or the muscle is shortening against an external load. 4. During lengthening contractions the spindle responses were greater than to passive stretch of similar amplitude and velocity, suggesting heightened fusimotor outflow. 5. During shortening and lengthening contractions small iregularities in the speed of movement occurred commonly. Unintended acceleration of a shortening movement caused a pause in spindle firing, and unintended acceleration of a lengthening movement caused an increased discharge from spindle endings. These spindle responses were associated with corresponding alterations in the discharge pattern of the voluntarily activated motor units at latencies consistent with the operation of spinal reflex mechanisms. 6. It is suggested that a functional role for the fusimotor activation during slow shortening contractions is to provide spindle endings with a background discharge so that they can detect irregularities in the movement and initiate the appropriate reflex correction.

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