Motor unit discharge rate modulation during isometric contractions to failure is intensity‐ and modality‐dependent

Tamara Valenčič, Paul Ansdell, Callum G. Brownstein, Padraig M. Spillane, Aleš Holobar, Jakob Škarabot*

*Corresponding author for this work

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The physiological mechanisms determining the progressive decline in the maximal muscle torque production capacity during isometric contractions to task failure are known to depend on task demands. Task‐specificity of the associated adjustments in motor unit discharge rate (MUDR), however, remains unclear. This study examined MUDR adjustments during different submaximal isometric knee extension tasks to failure. Participants performed a sustained and an intermittent task at 20% and 50% of maximal voluntary torque (MVT), respectively (Experiment 1). High‐density surface EMG signals were recorded from vastus lateralis (VL) and medialis (VM) and decomposed into individual MU discharge timings, with the identified MUs tracked from recruitment to task failure. MUDR was quantified and normalised to intervals of 10% of contraction time (CT). MUDR of both muscles exhibited distinct modulation patterns in each task. During the 20% MVT sustained task, MUDR decreased until ∼50% CT, after which it gradually returned to baseline. Conversely, during the 50% MVT intermittent task, MUDR remained stable until ∼40–50% CT, after which it started to continually increase until task failure. To explore the effect of contraction intensity on the observed patterns, VL and VM MUDR was quantified during sustained contractions at 30% and 50% MVT (Experiment 2). During the 30% MVT sustained task, MUDR remained stable until ∼80–90% CT in both muscles, after which it continually increased until task failure. During the 50% MVT sustained task the increase in MUDR occurred earlier, after ∼70–80% CT. Our results suggest that adjustments in MUDR during submaximal isometric contractions to failure are contraction modality‐ and intensity‐dependent. imageKey points During prolonged muscle contractions a constant motor output can be maintained by recruitment of additional motor units and adjustments in their discharge rate. Whilst contraction‐induced decrements in neuromuscular function are known to depend on task demands, task‐specificity of motor unit discharge behaviour adjustments is still unclear. In this study, we tracked and compared discharge activity of several concurrently active motor units in the vastii muscles during different submaximal isometric knee extension tasks to failure, including intermittent vs. sustained contraction modalities performed in the same intensity domain (Experiment 1), and two sustained contractions performed at different intensities (Experiment 2). During each task, motor units modulated their discharge rate in a distinct, biphasic manner, with the modulation pattern depending on contraction intensity and modality. These results provide insight into motoneuronal adjustments during contraction tasks posing different demands on the neuromuscular system.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-28
Number of pages28
JournalThe Journal of Physiology
Early online date15 Apr 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 15 Apr 2024

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