The pathophysiology of corticospinal tract degeneration in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) was investigated by studying the effect of transcranial magnetic stimulation on discharge characteristics of single motor units during voluntary activation. The motor units were recorded from the first dorsal interosseus muscles of 12 patients with ALS, 14 healthy subjects, 12 patients with upper motor neuron lesions and 9 with pure lower motor neuron diseases. More than 100 magnetic stimuli were delivered over the scalp during minimal muscle contraction. The occurrence of motor unit discharges was plotted in a peristimulus time histogram. An increase in discharge probability at latencies of 20-30 msec, that represents monosynaptic activation (primary peak) was found in normal units. Motor units from ALS patients with short disease durations had significantly increased discharge probabilities in the primary peak (P < 0.001). Motor units from 4 ALS patients with upper motor neuron signs showed double primary peaks: an initial synchronized peak followed by a dispersed peak. The latter was ascribed to a slow corticospinal pathway, which remains undetected or is functionally insignificant in healthy subjects. We conclude that the excitabilities of the surviving corticospinal tract pathways are abnormally increased in ALS, especially in the early stage.