Muscle memory and a new cellular model for muscle atrophy and hypertrophy

J Exp Biol. 2016 Jan;219(Pt 2):235-42. doi: 10.1242/jeb.124495.


Memory is a process in which information is encoded, stored, and retrieved. For vertebrates, the modern view has been that it occurs only in the brain. This review describes a cellular memory in skeletal muscle in which hypertrophy is 'remembered' such that a fibre that has previously been large, but subsequently lost its mass, can regain mass faster than naive fibres. A new cell biological model based on the literature, with the most reliable methods for identifying myonuclei, can explain this phenomenon. According to this model, previously untrained fibres recruit myonuclei from activated satellite cells before hypertrophic growth. Even if subsequently subjected to grave atrophy, the higher number of myonuclei is retained, and the myonuclei seem to be protected against the elevated apoptotic activity observed in atrophying muscle tissue. Fibres that have acquired a higher number of myonuclei grow faster when subjected to overload exercise, thus the nuclei represent a functionally important 'memory' of previous strength. This memory might be very long lasting in humans, as myonuclei are stable for at least 15 years and might even be permanent. However, myonuclei are harder to recruit in the elderly, and if the long-lasting muscle memory also exists in humans, one should consider early strength training as a public health advice. In addition, myonuclei are recruited during steroid use and encode a muscle memory, at least in rodents. Thus, extending the exclusion time for doping offenders should be considered.

Keywords: Atrophy; Hypertrophy; Muscle memory; Myonuclei; Satellite cells; Skeletal muscle; Strength training.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Hypertrophy
  • Models, Biological
  • Muscle, Skeletal / pathology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiopathology*
  • Muscular Atrophy / physiopathology*
  • Public Health
  • Sports