Motor unit activity when young and old adults perform steady contractions while supporting an inertial load

J Neurophysiol. 2013 Feb;109(4):1055-64. doi: 10.1152/jn.00437.2012. Epub 2012 Dec 5.


The purpose of the study was to compare the discharge characteristics of biceps brachii motor units of young and old adults when they performed steady, submaximal contractions while the arm supported different inertial loads. Young (28 ± 4 yr; n = 16) and old (75 ± 4 yr; n = 14) adults performed steady contractions with the elbow flexors at target forces set at either small (11.7 ± 4.4% maximum) or large (17.8 ± 6.5% maximum) differences below the recruitment threshold force of the motor unit (n = 40). The task was to maintain an elbow angle at 1.57 rad until the motor unit was recruited and discharged action potentials for ∼120 s. Time to recruitment was longer for the larger target force difference (187 ± 227 s vs. 23 ± 46 s, P < 0.001). Once recruited, motor units discharged action potentials either repetitively or intermittently, with a greater proportion of motor units exhibiting the repetitive pattern for old adults. Discharge rate at recruitment and during the steady contraction was similar for the two target force differences for old adults but was greater for the small target force difference for young adults. Discharge variability was similar at recruitment for the two age groups but less for the old adults during the steady contraction. The greatest difference between the present results and those reported previously when the arm pulled against a rigid restraint was that old adults modulated discharge rate less than young adults across the two contraction intensities for both load types.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Arm / physiology*
  • Elbow / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Muscle Contraction*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / innervation
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Recruitment, Neurophysiological