To investigate whether there are inter-nerve differences in the extent and pattern of axonal excitability changes produced by voluntary contractions of tibialis anterior (TA) and abductor pollicis brevis (APB), threshold tracking was used to measure axonal excitability parameters [threshold, supernormality and strength-duration time constant (tauSD)] of peroneal and median motor axons in 11 healthy subjects. Maximal contractions for 1 min resulted in an increase in threshold, an increase in supernormality, a decrease in tauSD and an increase in latency, all of which indicate axonal hyperpolarization. The increase in threshold was less in peroneal axons (18 +/- 4%) than median axons (37 +/- 6%, mean +/- SEM, P < 0.001), and was accompanied by smaller absolute changes in latency, supernormality, and tauSD. Peroneal axons had less supernormality at rest but a greater change in supernormality for the change in threshold. There were major contraction-induced changes in the compound muscle action potential of TA but not that of APB. Voluntary contractions depress axonal excitability, but the changes are quantitatively different for motor axons innervating different muscles. There are three clinical implications. First, weakness and fatigue due to activity-dependent conduction block may vary for different muscles, independent of disease severity, and therapeutic strategies to overcome activity-dependent conduction block may not be equally effective for different muscles. Second, in motor control studies using the H reflex to document motoneuron excitability, a constant stimulus will not produce a constant neural volley if the stimulated axons have been activated by, for example, a voluntary contraction. Third, TA is probably not optimal for testing for activity-dependent conduction block.
Copyright 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.