Motor unit excitability changes mediating vestibulocollic reflexes in the sternocleidomastoid muscle

Clin Neurophysiol. 2004 Nov;115(11):2567-73. doi: 10.1016/j.clinph.2004.06.012.


Objective: To investigate the patterns of motor unit firing in single motor units from the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles in response to stimuli previously shown to be capable of evoking vestibulocollic reflexes (loud clicks and electrical stimulation) and to relate these to the previously described surface potentials (VEMPs, vestibular evoked myogenic potentials) evoked by the same stimuli.

Methods: Eleven male subjects (30-43-years-old) were studied. Local anaesthetic was used to block the SCM and confirm that the surface potentials (p13n23) arose from it. At another time, fine wire or needle electrodes were used to record single motor unit activity and peristimulus time histograms were constructed.

Results: Local anaesthetic block reduced or abolished the p13n23 response in 5 of 6 subjects. A total of 94 histograms of motor unit discharges were recorded. The excitability changes seen were always small. Loud click stimuli given ipsilaterally evoked short latency (mean 14.2 ms, uncorrected for triggering delays), and short duration (mean 3.6 ms) inhibition. Contralaterally, the effect was excitatory (latency 11.9 ms, uncorrected, mean duration 2.3 ms). For electrical stimulation, short latency inhibition occurred ipsilateral to the cathode (average latency 14.0 ms, uncorrected, mean duration 2.9 ms) and excitation occurred contralaterally.

Conclusions: We confirmed that the SCM is the sole or dominant source of the VEMPs recorded from electrodes over it. Short latency, short duration motor unit firing changes are evoked in SCM by loud clicks and electrical stimulation, stimuli known to be capable of evoking vestibulocollic reflexes. VEMPs beginning with a positivity correspond to inhibition of the underlying motor unit firing and those starting with a negativity correspond to an underlying excitation, findings consistent with intracellular recordings of otolith effects. Qualitative explanations of how the surface potentials are generated by these excitability changes and relating to other properties of the surface responses are proposed.

Significance: This study has shown consistent patterns of single motor unit firing which underlie VEMPs evoked by both clicks and short duration galvanic stimulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adult
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Electrophysiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Neck Muscles / innervation*
  • Reaction Time
  • Reflex / physiology*
  • Vestibular Nerve / physiology*