Microneurographic assessment of C-fibre function in aged healthy subjects

J Physiol. 2009 Jan 15;587(2):419-28. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2008.162941. Epub 2008 Dec 8.


Physiological changes in the nervous system occur with ageing. Both a decline of function and a decrease in the number of C-fibres in the skin have been reported for healthy aged subjects. With the use of microneurographic recordings from single C-fibres in humans we have compared the sensory and axonal properties of these neurones in young and aged healthy subjects. A total of 146 C-fibres were recorded from the common peroneal nerve in young subjects (mean age 24.7 years) and 230 C-fibres were recorded in aged subjects (mean age 56.2 years). In aged subjects, changes were found in the composition of the C-fibre population and in sensory and axonal properties. The relative incidence of afferent to efferent C-fibres was relatively constant independent of the age of subjects. The ratio of mechano-responsive to mechano-insensitive nociceptors was approximately 8 : 2 in the young controls while in aged subjects it was 7 : 3. In aged subjects 13% of the fibres showed atypical discharge characteristics, while this was not observed in young subjects. Spontaneous activity, sensitization and loss of sensory function were found regularly. Changes in functions of the conductile membrane were also observed in fibres from aged subjects. The degree of activity-dependent conduction velocity slowing in response to high frequency stimulation (2 Hz) was more pronounced, while the normalization of conduction velocity subsequent to high frequency stimulation was protracted. We found that both sensitization and desensitization or degeneration of afferent C-fibres occur with age, but are still rare compared to patients with neuropathy. The changes in the axonal properties of C-fibres in aged subjects are compatible with hypoexcitability of the fibres. These findings are important for the understanding and differential diagnoses regarding pathological processes and normal ageing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Adrenergic Fibers / physiology
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Axons / physiology
  • Diagnostic Techniques, Neurological
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Female
  • Hot Temperature
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mechanoreceptors / physiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Nerve Fibers, Unmyelinated / classification
  • Nerve Fibers, Unmyelinated / physiology*
  • Neural Conduction / physiology
  • Neurons, Afferent / physiology
  • Neurons, Efferent / physiology
  • Neurophysiology / methods
  • Nociceptors / physiology
  • Peroneal Nerve / physiology*
  • Sensory Thresholds / physiology
  • Young Adult