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Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2018 Feb;222(2). doi: 10.1111/apha.12930. Epub 2017 Oct 23.

Distribution of muscle fibre conduction velocity for representative samples of motor units in the full recruitment range of the tibialis anterior muscle.

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Department of Movement, Human and Health Sciences, University of Rome "Foro Italico", Rome, Italy.
Department of Bioengineering, Imperial College London, London, UK.
Department of Clinical and Experimental Sciences, University of Brescia, Brescia, Italy.



Motor units are recruited in an orderly manner according to the size of motor neurones. Moreover, because larger motor neurones innervate fibres with larger diameters than smaller motor neurones, motor units should be recruited orderly according to their conduction velocity (MUCV). Because of technical limitations, these relations have been previously tested either indirectly or in small motor unit samples that revealed weak associations between motor unit recruitment threshold (RT) and MUCV. Here, we analyse the relation between MUCV and RT for large samples of motor units.


Ten healthy volunteers completed a series of isometric ankle dorsiflexions at forces up to 70% of the maximum. Multi-channel surface electromyographic signals recorded from the tibialis anterior muscle were decomposed into single motor unit action potentials, from which the corresponding motor unit RT, MUCV and action potential amplitude were estimated. Established relations between muscle fibre diameter and CV were used to estimate the fibre size.


Within individual subjects, the distributions of MUCV and fibre diameters were unimodal and did not show distinct populations. MUCV was strongly correlated with RT (mean (SD) R2  = 0.7 (0.09), P < 0.001; 406 motor units), which supported the hypothesis that fibre diameter is associated with RT.


The results provide further evidence for the relations between motor neurone and muscle fibre properties for large samples of motor units. The proposed methodology for motor unit analysis has also the potential to open new perspectives in the study of chronic and acute neuromuscular adaptations to ageing, training and pathology.


conduction velocity; motor unit; muscle fibre diameter; recruitment; size principle

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