Synchronization of motor unit firings: an epiphenomenon of firing rate characteristics not common inputs

J Neurophysiol. 2016 Jan 1;115(1):178-92. doi: 10.1152/jn.00452.2015. Epub 2015 Oct 21.


Synchronous motor unit firing instances have been attributed to anatomical inputs shared by motoneurons. Yet, there is a lack of empirical evidence confirming the notion that common inputs elicit synchronization under voluntary conditions. We tested this notion by measuring synchronization between motor unit action potential trains (MUAPTs) as their firing rates progressed within a contraction from a relatively low force level to a higher one. On average, the degree of synchronization decreased as the force increased. The common input notion provides no empirically supported explanation for the observed synchronization behavior. Therefore, we investigated a more probable explanation for synchronization. Our data set of 17,546 paired MUAPTs revealed that the degree of synchronization varies as a function of two characteristics of the motor unit firing rate: the similarity and the slope as a function of force. Both are measures of the excitation of the motoneurons. As the force generated by the muscle increases, the firing rate slope decreases, and the synchronization correspondingly decreases. Different muscles have motor units with different firing rate characteristics and display different amounts of synchronization. Although this association is not proof of causality, it consistently explains our observations and strongly suggests further investigation. So viewed, synchronization is likely an epiphenomenon, subject to countless unknown neural interactions. As such, synchronous firing instances may not be the product of a specific design and may not serve a specific physiological purpose. Our explanation for synchronization has the advantage of being supported by empirical evidence, whereas the common input does not.

Keywords: common input; firing instances; motoneuron; motor unit; synchronization.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Evoked Potentials, Motor*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Recruitment, Neurophysiological*
  • Young Adult