Human motor unit recordings: origins and insight into the integrated motor system

Brain Res. 2011 Aug 29:1409:42-61. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2011.06.011. Epub 2011 Jun 13.


Soon after Edward Liddell [1895-1981] and Charles Sherrington [1857-1952] introduced the concept of a motor unit in 1925 and the necessary technology was developed, the recording of single motor unit activity became feasible in humans. It was quickly discovered by Edgar Adrian [1889-1977] and Detlev Bronk [1897-1975] that the force exerted by muscle during voluntary contractions was the result of the concurrent recruitment of motor units and modulation of the rate at which they discharged action potentials. Subsequent studies found that the relation between discharge frequency and motor unit force was characterized by a sigmoidal function. Based on observations on experimental animals, Elwood Henneman [1915-1996] proposed a "size principle" in 1957 and most studies in humans focussed on validating this concept during various types of muscle contractions. By the end of the 20th C, the experimental evidence indicated that the recruitment order of human motor units was determined primarily by motoneuron size and that the occasional changes in recruitment order were not an intended strategy of the central nervous system. Fundamental knowledge on the function of Sherrington's "common final pathway" was expanded with observations on motor unit rotation, minimal and maximal discharge rates, discharge variability, and self-sustained firing. Despite the great amount of work on characterizing motor unit activity during the first century of inquiry, however, many basic questions remain unanswered and these limit the extent to which findings on humans and experimental animals can be integrated and generalized to all movements.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Electrophysiology / history
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Neurosciences / history*
  • Spinal Cord / physiology*