Voluntary control of motor units in human antagonist muscles: coactivation and reciprocal activation

J Neurophysiol. 1987 Sep;58(3):525-42. doi: 10.1152/jn.1987.58.3.525.


1. Myoelectric (ME) activity of several motor units was detected simultaneously from the human flexor pollicis longus and extensor pollicis longus muscles, the only two muscles that control the interphalangeal joint of the thumb. The ME signals were detected while the subjects produced isometric force outputs to track three different paradigms: triangular trajectories, random-force trajectories requiring both flexion and extension contractions, and net zero force resulting from stiffening the joint by voluntarily coactivating both muscles. 2. The ME signals were decomposed into their constituent motor-unit action potential trains. The firing rate behavior of the concurrently active motor units was studied using cross-correlation techniques. 3. During isometric contractions, the firing rates of motor units within a muscle were greatly cross-correlated with essentially zero time shift with respect to each other. This observation confirms our previous report of this behavior, which has been called common drive. Common drive was also found among the motor units of the agonist and antagonist muscles during voluntary coactivation to stiffen the interphalangeal joint. This observation suggests two interesting points: 1) that the common drive mechanism has a component of central origin, and 2) that the central nervous system may control the motoneuron pools of an agonist-antagonist muscle pair as if they were one pool when both are performing the same task. 4. During force reversals, the firing rates of motor units reverse in an orderly manner: earlier recruited motor units decrease their firing rate before later recruited motor units. This orderly reversal of firing rates is consistent with the concept of orderly recruitment and derecruitment. 5. A control scheme is suggested to explain the behavior of the motor units in both muscles during force reversal. It consists of centrally mediated reciprocally organized flexion and extension commands along with a common coactivation command to both muscles. This control scheme allows for coactivation and reciprocal activation of an agonist-antagonist set. 6. The agonist-antagonist pair was observed to generate a net force in two control modalities: proportional activation and reciprocal activation. In proportional activation, the agonist-antagonist set is coactivated during either of two states: when uncertainty exists in the required task or when a compensatory force contraction is perceived to be required.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Humans
  • Isometric Contraction
  • Male
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Muscle Contraction*
  • Thumb*