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J Neurophysiol. 2003 Nov;90(5):2919-27.

Recruitment order of motor units in human vastus lateralis muscle is maintained during fatiguing contractions.

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Department of Biomedical Engineering, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA.


Motor-unit firing patterns were studied in the vastus lateralis muscle of five healthy young men [21.4 +/- 0.9 (SD) yr] during a series of isometric knee extensions performed to exhaustion. Each contraction was held at a constant torque level, set to 20% of the maximal voluntary contraction at the beginning of the experiment. Electromyographic signals, recorded via a quadrifilar fine wire electrode, were processed with the precision decomposition technique to identify the firing times of individual motor units. In repeat experiments, whole-muscle mechanical properties were measured during the fatigue protocol using electrical stimulation. The main findings were a monotonic decrease in the recruitment threshold of all motor units and the progressive recruitment of new units, all without a change of the recruitment order. Motor units from the same subject showed a similar time course of threshold decline, but this decline varied among subjects (mean threshold decrease ranged from 23 to 73%). The mean threshold decline was linearly correlated (R2 >or= 0.96) with a decline in the elicited peak tetanic torque. In summary, the maintenance of recruitment order during fatigue strongly supports the notion that the observed common recruitment adaptations were a direct consequence of an increased excitatory drive to the motor unit pool. It is suggested that the increased central drive was necessary to compensate for the loss in force output from motor units whose muscle fibers were actively contracting. We therefore conclude that the control scheme of motor-unit recruitment remains invariant during fatigue at least in relatively large muscles performing submaximal isometric contractions.

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