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Muscle Nerve. 1991 Jul;14(7):585-97.

Invited review: motor unit estimation: methods, results, and present status.

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Department of Medicine, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.


The renewed interest in motor unit estimation (counting) has coincided with the introduction of computer-based methodology and with the application of the technique to proximal as well as distal muscles. The advantages and disadvantages of the different methods are considered, together with the assumptions inherent in this type of examination. In normal subjects, the extensor digitorum brevis (EDB) muscle has approximately 200 motor units while each of the intrinsic muscles of the hand has about 100 units; larger muscles in the limbs contain greater numbers of units. Beyond the age of 60 years, there is a decline in the number of functioning motor units in both proximal and distal muscles. In denervating disorders, motor unit estimation is useful for diagnosis and assessment; abnormal values may often be observed in muscles judged clinically to be unaffected. Serial studies have enabled the rate of motor unit loss to be determined in ALS and in spinal muscular atrophy. Depletion of motor units has also been found following upper motoneuron lesions caused by injury to the spinal cord or by cerebral hemorrhage; trans-synaptic dysfunction has been presumed responsible. Rather surprisingly, reduced numbers of motor units have been observed in a variety of myopathic disorders; of these, the most consistent abnormalities have been reported in myotonic muscular dystrophy.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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