The potential for understanding the synaptic organization of human motor commands via the firing patterns of motoneurons

J Neurophysiol. 2017 Jul 1;118(1):520-531. doi: 10.1152/jn.00018.2017. Epub 2017 Mar 29.


Motoneurons are unique in being the only neurons in the CNS whose firing patterns can be easily recorded in human subjects. This is because of the one-to-one relationship between the motoneuron and muscle cell behavior. It has long been appreciated that the connection of motoneurons to their muscle fibers allows their action potentials to be amplified and recorded, but only recently has it become possible to simultaneously record the firing pattern of many motoneurons via array electrodes placed on the skin. These firing patterns contain detailed information about the synaptic organization of motor commands to the motoneurons. This review focuses on parameters in these firing patterns that are directly linked to specific features of this organization. It is now well established that motor commands consist of three components, excitation, inhibition, and neuromodulation; the importance of the third component has become increasingly evident. Firing parameters linked to each of the three components are discussed, along with consideration of potential limitations in their utility for understanding the underlying organization of motor commands. Future work based on realistic computer simulations of motoneurons may allow quantitative "reverse engineering" of human motoneuron firing patterns to provide good estimates of the relative amplitudes and temporal patterns of all three components of motor commands.

Keywords: electrode array; motoneuron; motor unit.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials* / physiology
  • Humans
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Movement / physiology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Synapses / physiology*