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J Appl Physiol (1985). 1990 Apr;68(4):1657-67.

Inference of motor unit recruitment order in voluntary and electrically elicited contractions.

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  • 1Department of Electronics, Politecnico di Torino, Italy.


The relationship between surface myoelectric signal parameters and the level of voluntary or electrically elicited contractions was studied in 32 experiments on the tibialis anterior muscle of 22 healthy human subjects. Contractions were performed at 20 and 80% of the maximum voluntary contraction torque. Two levels of stimulation current were used, yielding, respectively, a maximum M wave and an M wave approximately 30% of the maximum. A four-bar electrode probe was used to detect single- and double-differential signals from which mean and median frequency of the power spectrum and average muscle fiber conduction velocity were estimated. Measurements obtained from voluntary contractions showed a positive correlation between contraction levels and both conduction velocity and spectral parameters. Conduction velocity increased by 21.2 +/- 10.9% when voluntary contraction level increased from 20 to 80% of the maximal value. Spectral parameters increased by similar amounts. Tetanic electrical stimulation was applied to a muscle motor point for 20 s via surface electrodes. Rectangular current pulses with 0.1-ms width and frequencies of 20, 25, 30, 35, and 40 Hz were used. Four types of behavior were observed with increasing stimulation level: 1) the two spectral parameters and conduction velocity both increased with stimulation in 15 experiments, 2) the two spectral parameters decreased and conduction velocity increased in 8 experiments, 3) the two spectral parameters and conduction velocity both decreased in 6 experiments, and 4) the two spectral parameters increased and conduction velocity decreased in 3 experiments. Conduction velocity increased with increasing stimulation current in 72% of the experiments, indicating a recruitment order similar to that of voluntary contractions, although it decreased in the other 28% of the cases, indicating a reverse order of recruitment. Contrary to what is observed in direct stimulation of nerves, motor units are not in general recruited in reverse order of size during electrical stimulation of a muscle motor point. This discrepancy may be the result of geometric factors or a lack of correlation between axonal branch diameter and the diameter of the parent motoneuron axon. Changes of conduction velocity and spectral parameters in opposite directions may be the result of the combined effect of the motor unit recruitment order and of the different tissue filtering function associated with the geometric location of the recruited motor units within the muscle.

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