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The Abrupt Transition From Rest To Activity In Muscle


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The internal mechanical condition of an excited muscle has been examined by applying quick stretches at various moments after a maximal shock. At the end of the latent period there is an abrupt change of state, the contractile component suddenly becoming capable of bearing a load equal to the maximum tension set up in an isometric tetanus. The intensity of the active state produced by a shock is greatest at the start, is maintained for a time and then declines as relaxation sets in. The properties of the fully active state are defined by the three constants of the characteristic equation relating speed of shortening to load. A muscle consists mechanically of three components: (1) a contractile one, (2) an undamped series elastic one and (3) a parallel elastic one. The complication provided by (3) is avoided by working with small initial loads. The load-extension relation of the series elastic component has been determined. Its extensibility is high at small loads, becoming much less at greater ones. The full isometric force produces an extension in it of about 10% of the muscle’s length. In an isometric tetanus the form of the myogram is fully determined by the characteristic force-velocity relation of the contractile component and the load-extension curve of the series elastic one, the former having to shorten and stretch the latter before an external tension can be manifested. In a twitch there is insufficient time, before relaxation sets in, for the full tension to be developed. When the tension is raised sufficiently by a quick stretch applied early after a shock the contractile component cannot shorten as it would normally and the heat of shortening is absent. The heat of activation is probably a by-product of the process by which the sudden change of state from rest to full activity occurs. When a muscle is subjected to a tension rather greater than it can bear it lengthens slowly; to a tension considerably greater it ‘gives’ or ‘slips’. When a muscle is stretched rapidly a transitory overshoot of tension occurs followed by ‘slip’. During the disappearance of this extra tension heat is produced, as in the ‘cold drawing’ of a wire or thread. An analogous process occurs in relaxation under a load. When two shocks are applied in succession, the second restores the active state to its full intensity, from which it has declined to an extent depending on the interval after the first one. If, under isometric conditions, the series elastic component is still partly stretched at the moment when the second response occurs, the total tension developed is greater. This is the origin of the so-called ‘supernormal phase’ and the basis of the greater tension maintained in atetanic contraction. During a tetanus each shock restores the active state of the muscle to its full intensity. It seems reasonably certain that excitation of a muscle fibre occurs at its surface. It has been suggested that contraction is set up inside by the arrival of some chemical substance diffusing inwards after liberation a t the surface. The onset, however, of full activity occurs so soon after a shock that diffusion is far too slow to account for it. A process, not a substance, must carry activation inwards.