Alpha, beta and gamma motoneurons: functional diversity in the motor system's final pathway

J Integr Neurosci. 2011 Sep;10(3):243-76. doi: 10.1142/S0219635211002786.


Since their discovery in the late 19th century our conception of motoneurons has steadily evolved. Motoneurons share the same general function: they drive the contraction of muscle fibers and are the final common pathway, i.e., the seat of convergence of all the central and peripheral pathways involved in motricity. However, motoneurons innervate different types of muscular targets. Ordinary muscle fibers are subdivided into three main subtypes according to their structural and mechanical properties. Intrafusal muscle fibers located within spindles can elicit either a dynamic, or a static, action on the spindle sensory endings. No less than seven categories of motoneurons have thereby been identified on the basis of their innervation pattern. This functional diversity has hinted at a similar diversity in the inputs each motoneuron receives, as well as in the electrical, or cellular, properties of the motoneurons that match the properties of their muscle targets. The notion of the diverse properties of motoneurons has been well established by the work of many prominent neuroscientists. But in today's scientific literature, it tends to fade and motoneurons are often thought of as a homogenous group, which develop from a given population of precursor cells, and which express a common set of molecules. We first present here the historical milestones that led to the recognition of the functional diversity of motoneurons. We then review how the intrinsic electrical properties of motoneurons are precisely tuned in each category of motoneurons in order to produce an output that is adapted to the contractile properties of their specific targets.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Motor Neurons / cytology*
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Muscles / innervation*
  • Synapses / physiology