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Exp Brain Res. 2014 Nov;232(11):3397-412. doi: 10.1007/s00221-014-4088-5. Epub 2014 Sep 9.

Muscle thixotropy as a tool in the study of proprioception.

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Department of Physiology, Monash University, PO Box 13F, Clayton, VIC, 3800, Australia,


When a muscle relaxes after a contraction, cross-bridges between actin and myosin in sarcomeres detach, but about 1% spontaneously form new, non-force-generating attachments. These bridges give muscle its thixotropic property. They remain in place for long periods if the muscle is left undisturbed and give the muscle a passive stiffness in response to a stretch. They are detached by stretch, but reform at the new length. If the muscle is then shortened, the presence of these bridges prevents muscle fibres from shortening and they fall slack. So, resting muscle can be in one of two states, where it presents in response to a stretch with a high stiffness, if no slack is present, or with a compliant response in the presence of slack. Intrafusal fibres of muscle spindles show thixotropic behaviour. For spindles, after a conditioning contraction, they are left stretch sensitive, with a high level of background discharge. Alternatively, if after the contraction the muscle is shortened, intrafusal fibres fall slack, leaving spindles with a low level of background activity and insensitivity to stretch. Muscle spindles are receptors involved in the senses of human limb position and movement. The technique of muscle conditioning can be used to help understand the contribution of muscle spindles to these senses and how the brain interprets signals arising in spindles. When, in a two-arm position-matching task, elbow muscles of the two arms are deliberately conditioned in opposite ways, the blindfolded subject makes large position errors of which they are unaware. The evidence suggests that the brain is concerned with the difference signal coming from the antagonists acting at the elbow and with the overall difference in signal from the two arms. Another way of measuring position sense is to use a single arm and indicate its perceived position with a pointer. Here, there is no access to a signal from the other limb, and position sense relies on referral to a central map of the body, the postural schema.

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