Control of motor unit firing during step-like increases in voluntary force

Xiaogang Hu, William Z. Rymer, Nina L. Suresh

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16 Scopus citations


In most skeletal muscles, force is generated by a combination of motor unit (MU) recruitment and increases in the firing rate of previously active MUs. Two contrasting patterns of firing rate organization have been reported. In the first pattern, the earliest recruited MUs reach the highest firing rates as force is increased, and later recruited MUs fire at lower rates. When firing rate of multiple MUs are superimposed, these rate trajectories form a concentric layered profile termed “onion skin.” In the second pattern, called “reverse onion skin,” later recruited MUs reach higher firing rates, and crossing of firing rate trajectories for recorded MUs is common (although such trajectories are assembled routinely from different trials). Our present study examined the firing rate organization of concurrently active MUs of the first dorsal interosseous muscle during serial, step-like increases in isometric abduction forces. We used a surface sensor array coupled with MU discrimination algorithms to characterize MU firing patterns. Our objective was to determine whether “onion skin” profiles are contingent upon the force trajectory of the motor task, examined here using step-like increases of force output, and also whether they are manifested at different force levels. Our results revealed that the overall “onion skin” firing rate profile was retained as the force level increased with each force step up to 15% MVC. However, the distribution of firing rates across MUs was compressed with increasing force, and overlapping firing rate of units were observed. This rate compression was largely due to rate saturation of the relatively high frequency discharging MUs. Our results reflect flexible firing patterns across MUs at different levels of excitation drive. It is also evident that many units did not follow all the step increases consistently. This failure to track firing rate increases at higher forces could be due to an intrinsically mediated saturation of firing rates for the low threshold MUs, or potentially to some form of inhibitory interactions between active MUs as the level of excitation of the MU pool is progressively increased.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number721
Pages (from-to)1-9
Number of pages9
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
StatePublished - Sep 11 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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