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J Neurol Sci. 1992 Oct;112(1-2):170-7.

Alterations in the contractile properties of motor units within the ageing rat medial gastrocnemius.

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Department of Physiology, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia.


The decline in muscle force accompanying senescence is associated with a loss of motor nerves which provides some opportunity for collateral reinnervation and alterations in the mechanical properties of surviving motor units. The contribution of the different motor unit types to this neuromuscular reorganization was investigated by determining the isometric contractile properties of single motor units within the medial gastrocnemius of rats aged 791 +/- 39 days. These were compared with a group of similarly isolated and classified units within young adult rats aged between four and five months. The estimated number of units decreased significantly from 93 +/- 28 in young adults to 66 +/- 19 in senescent animals. There was a preferential loss of fast motor units and a significant loss of myelinated axons within the muscle nerve. The maximum tetanic force developed by FF motor units decreased with age while that of the more fatigue resistant FI and FR motor units increased. Other contractile properties were unaltered and there was no change in any contractile parameter for S unit types. Alterations in the cross-sectional areas and proportions of histochemically classified muscle fibres reflected these changes. The proportion of FG fibres declined with age and there was evidence of denervation, particularly within the peripheral rim of fast type fibres. The number of muscle fibres within the medial gastrocnemius decreased with age. These results indicate that fast motor units are most severely affected during the early stages of senescence. Within this population the FF motor units which have the largest innervation ratios in the young adult may suffer preferential degeneration.

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