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Motor Unit Substitution In Long-Duration Contractions Of The Human Trapezius Muscle

R. H. Westgaard, C. J. de Luca

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We examined the activity pattern of low-threshold motor units in the human trapezius muscle during contractions of 10 min duration. Three procedures were applied in sequence: 1) static contraction controlled by maintaining a constant low level of the surface electromyogram (EMG)-detected root-mean-square signal, 2) a manipulation task with mental concentration, and 3) copying a text on a word processor. A quadrifilar fine-wire electrode was used to record single motor unit activity. Simultaneously, surface electrodes recorded the surface EMG signal. During these contractions, low-threshold motor units showed periods of inactivity and were substituted by motor units of higher recruitment threshold. This phenomenon was not observed during the first few minutes of the contraction. In several cases the substitution process coincided with a short period of inactivity in the surface EMG pattern. Substitution was observed in five of eight experiments. These observations may be explained by a time-variant recruitment threshold of motor units, sensitive to their activation history and temporal variation in the activity patterns. We speculate that the substitution phenomenon protects motor units in postural muscles from excessive fatigue when there is a demand for sustained low-level muscle activity.