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J Neurophysiol. 2006 Jun;95(6):3512-8. Epub 2006 Feb 15.

Output of human motoneuron pools to corticospinal inputs during voluntary contractions.

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Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute, University of New South Wales, Barker Street, Randwick, Sydney, NSW 2031, Australia.


This study investigated transmission of corticospinal output through motoneurons over a wide range of voluntary contraction strengths in humans. During voluntary contraction of biceps brachii, motor evoked potentials (MEPs) to transcranial magnetic stimulation of the motor cortex grow up to about 50% maximal force and then decrease. To determine whether the decrease reflects events at a cortical or spinal level, responses to stimulation of the cortex and corticospinal tract (cervicomedullary motor evoked potentials, CMEPs) as well as maximal M-waves (M(max)) were recorded during strong contractions at 50 to 100% maximum. In biceps and brachioradialis, MEPs and CMEPs (normalized to M(max)) evoked by strong stimuli decreased during strong elbow flexions. Responses were largest during contractions at 75% maximum and both potentials decreased by about 25% M(max) during maximal efforts (P < 0.001). Reductions were smaller with weaker stimuli, but again similar for MEPs and CMEPs. Thus the reduction in MEPs during strong voluntary contractions can be accounted for by reduced responsiveness of the motoneuron pool to stimulation. During strong contractions of the first dorsal interosseous, a muscle that increases voluntary force largely by frequency modulation, MEPs declined more than in either elbow flexor muscle (35% M(max), P < 0.001). This suggests that motoneuron firing rates are important determinants of evoked output from the motoneuron pool. However, motor cortical output does not appear to be limited at high contraction strengths.

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