Hierarchical control of motor units in voluntary contractions

J Neurophysiol. 2012 Jan;107(1):178-95. doi: 10.1152/jn.00961.2010. Epub 2011 Oct 5.


For the past five decades there has been wide acceptance of a relationship between the firing rate of motor units and the afterhyperpolarization of motoneurons. It has been promulgated that the higher-threshold, larger-soma, motoneurons fire faster than the lower-threshold, smaller-soma, motor units. This relationship was based on studies on anesthetized cats with electrically stimulated motoneurons. We questioned its applicability to motor unit control during voluntary contractions in humans. We found that during linearly force-increasing contractions, firing rates increased as exponential functions. At any time and force level, including at recruitment, the firing rate values were inversely related to the recruitment threshold of the motor unit. The time constants of the exponential functions were directly related to the recruitment threshold. From the Henneman size principle it follows that the characteristics of the firing rates are also related to the size of the soma. The "firing rate spectrum" presents a beautifully simple control scheme in which, at any given time or force, the firing rate value of earlier-recruited motor units is greater than that of later-recruited motor units. This hierarchical control scheme describes a mechanism that provides an effective economy of force generation for the earlier-recruited lower force-twitch motor units, and reduces the fatigue of later-recruited higher force-twitch motor units-both characteristics being well suited for generating and sustaining force during the fight-or-flight response.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Electromyography*
  • Feedback, Physiological / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Isometric Contraction / physiology*
  • Male
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Neuromuscular Junction / physiology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology*
  • Volition / physiology*
  • Young Adult