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Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Doctor of Philosophy




Rice, Charles L.


Voluntary movements throughout mammalian lifespan require skeletal muscle contractions that are controlled by time- and recruitment-dependent firing rate patterns. Single motor unit (MU) activity reflects the final efferent neural drive to the muscle, yet the underlying neural control of movement at the MU level is not well understood. Using intramuscular electromyography single MU recordings, relationships between voluntary contraction kinematics and MU firing rates were evaluated in vivo, in groups of young and older adult participants.

The purpose of study one was to characterize how MU firing rates are differently scaled among muscles relative to voluntary contraction intensity. Across 12 different muscles, MU firing rates were compared between voluntary intensities and two adult age groups. Findings supported that firing rates are muscle and voluntary intensity dependent. But with adult ageing, firing rates were more similar across muscles, although more dissimilar in response to voluntary contraction intensity.

The purpose of study two was to compare whether MU firing rates recorded from the anconeus muscle change similarly with an age-related effect in both isometric and limb movement contractions. Results indicated that firing rates were lower in older adults during isometric contraction but not during limb movements, supporting observations of greater descending drive during movements in older adults, and reflected at the single MU level.

The purpose of study three was to investigate how MU firing rates recorded from the anconeus and triceps brachii muscles are related with elbow extension movement kinematics. Effects of phase lag between comparisons were minimized by relating each firing-time to separated kinematic parameters. Through correlation analysis, results showed that firing rates of both muscles were directly related to limb torque, but not velocity or position, supporting that MU activity controls movements indirectly through torque.

In study four, MU firing rate trajectories of the anconeus and triceps brachii muscles were compared between isometric and limb movement contractions. During self-initiated contractions, results indicated that characteristics of the trajectory were dependent on the task. Whereas during reaction-cued contractions, MU firings occurred sooner relative to the go-cue, suggesting that descending inputs determine the trajectory, but the state of limb-movement further modifies trajectory timing.

Summary for Lay Audience

Voluntary movements require direct control from the brain, brainstem, and spinal cord. At the smallest scale, the motor unit (MU) represents a single lower motor neuron located in the brainstem or spinal cord, its motor axon that travels into the periphery and all innervated skeletal muscle fibres acting in unison to produce a voluntary contraction. These contractions at the muscle can apply force to our external environment through the tendon and bone and are task specific. These forces are influenced by how and when MU activation occurs; including the number of MU activations per second (i.e., firing rate), how many MUs are activated (i.e., recruitment), and the MU structure. Despite considerable research of electrified muscle contractions, there remains few studies that have explored how movement is controlled at the single MU firing rate level during more ‘real-life’ movements. Therefore, in a series of experiments, this thesis sought to characterize and compare how the modulation of MU firing rate activity is different between muscles, and between voluntary contractions that permit the joint to move. Furthermore, MU firing rates differences were compared between groups of young and older adults, as ageing of older adults is accompanied by muscle slowness and weakness.

From our results, MU firing rates were contraction intensity, muscle, and age dependent during isometric contractions, but during limb movements, MU firing rates were more similar between age groups. Across different muscles, the firing rate range was broad during isometric contraction and generally lower in older adults. However, during limb movements, MU firing rates recorded from the anconeus muscle (accessory elbow extensor) were similar between age groups, suggesting that muscle weakness was explained by factors other than lower MU firing rates. In young adults, the underlying neural control of elbow extension movement was more closely related to limb torque and was different as compared to sustained isometric contractions. Although, when voluntary preparation and contraction profiles were controlled, firing rate patterns were similar between isometric contractions and movements, but occurred sooner during limb movement. This suggested that single MU firing rate trajectories are task dependent and can occur sooner shifted during the movement-related state.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License