Effects of ageing on the motor unit: a brief review

Can J Appl Physiol. 1993 Dec;18(4):331-58. doi: 10.1139/h93-029.


This review briefly summarizes the current state of knowledge regarding age related changes in skeletal muscle, followed by a more in-depth review of ageing effects on animal and human motor units (MUs). Ageing in humans is generally associated with reductions in muscle mass (atrophy), leading to reduced voluntary and electrically evoked contractile strength by the 7th decade for most muscle groups studied. As well, contraction and one-half relaxation times are typically prolonged in muscles of the elderly. Evidence from animal and human studies points toward age associated MU loss as the primary mechanism for muscle atrophy, and such losses may be greatest among the largest and fastest MUs. However, based on studies in animals and humans, it appears that at least some of the surviving MUs are able to partially compensate for MU losses, as indicated by an increase in the average MU size with age. The fact that muscles in the elderly have fewer, but on average larger and slower, MUs has important implications for motor control and function in this population.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aging / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Muscle Contraction / physiology
  • Muscles / innervation
  • Muscles / physiology
  • Muscles / ultrastructure
  • Muscular Atrophy / pathology
  • Muscular Atrophy / physiopathology