Stability of Motor-Unit Force Thresholds in the Decerebrate Cat

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To further test the hypothesis that some fixed property of motoneurons determines their recruitment order, we quantified the variation in force threshold (FT) for motoneurons recruited in muscle stretch reflexes in the decerebrate cat. Motor axons supplying the medial gastrocnemius (MG) muscle were penetrated with micropipettes and physiological properties of the motoneuron and its muscle fibers, i.e., the motor unit, were measured. FT, defined as the amount of MG force produced when the isolated motor unit was recruited, was measured from 20 to 93 consecutive stretch trials for 29 motor units. Trials were selected for limited variation in base force and rate of rise of force, which have been shown to covary with FT, and in peak stretch force, which gives some index of motor-pool excitability. Under these restricted conditions, large variation in FT would have been inconsistent with the hypothesis. Analysis of the variation in FT employed the coefficient of variation (CV), because of the tendency for FT variance and mean to increase together. We found that CV was distributed with a median value of 10% and with only 2 of 29 units exceeding 36%. Some of this variation was associated with measurement error and with intertrial fluctuations in base, peak, and the rate of change of muscle force. CV was not significantly correlated with motor-unit axonal conduction velocity, contraction time, or force. In three cases FT was measured simultaneously from two motor units in the same stretch trials. Changes in recruitment order were rarely observed (5 of 121 stretch trials), even when FT ranges for units in a pair overlapped. We suggest that the large variation in recruitment threshold observed in some earlier studies resulted not from wide variation in the recruitment ranking of motoneurons within one muscle, but rather from variation in the relative activity of different pools of motoneurons. Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that recruitment order is determined by some fixed property of alpha-motoneurons and/or by some unvarying combination of presynaptic inputs that fluctuate in parallel.

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