Firing Rate Modulation of Motoneurons Activated by Cutaneous and Muscle Receptor Afferents in the Decerebrate Cat

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The aim of this study was to investigate whether activation of spinal motoneurons by sensory afferents of the caudal cutaneous sural (CCS) nerve evokes an atypical motor control scheme. In this scheme, motor units that contract fast and forcefully are driven by CCS afferents to fire faster than motor units that contract more slowly and weakly. This is the opposite of the scheme described by the size principle. Earlier studies from this lab do not support the atypical scheme and instead demonstrate that both CCS and muscle stretch recruit motor units according to the size principle. The latter finding may indicate that CCS and muscle-stretch inputs have similar functional organizations or that comparison of recruitment sequence was simply unable to resolve a difference. In the present experiments, we examine this issue using rate modulation as a more sensitive index of motoneuron activation than recruitment. Quantification of the firing output generated by these two inputs in the same pairs of motoneurons enabled direct comparison of the functional arrangements of CCS versus muscle-stretch inputs across the pool of medial gastrocnemius (MG) motoneurons. No systematic difference was observed in the rate modulation produced by CCS versus muscle-stretch inputs for 35 pairs of MG motoneurons. For the subset of 24 motoneuron pairs exhibiting linear co-modulation of firing rate (r > 0.5) in response to both CCS and muscle inputs, the slopes of the regression lines were statistically indistinguishable between the two inputs. For individual motoneuron pairs, small differences in slope between inputs were not related to differences in conduction velocity (CV), recruitment order, or, for a small sample, differences in motor unit force. We conclude that an atypical motor control scheme involving selective activation of typically less excitable motoneurons, if it does occur during normal movement, is not an obligatory consequence of activation by sural nerve afferents. On average and for both muscle-stretch and skin-pinch inputs, the motoneuron with the faster CV in the pair tended to be driven to fire at slightly but significantly faster firing rates. Computer simulations based in part on frequency-current relations measured directly from motoneurons revealed that properties intrinsic to motoneurons are sufficient to account for the higher firing rates of the faster CV motoneuron in a pair.

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