Distinguishing intrinsic from extrinsic factors underlying firing rate saturation in human motor units

Andrew J. Fuglevand, Rosemary A. Lester, Richard K. Johns

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


During voluntary contraction, firing rates of individual motor units (MUs) increase modestly over a narrow force range beyond which little additional increase in firing rate is seen. Such saturation of MU discharge may be a consequence of extrinsic factors that limit net synaptic excitation acting on motor neurons (MNs) or may be due to intrinsic properties of the MNs. Two sets of experiments involving recording of human biceps brachii MUs were carried out to evaluate saturation. In the first set, the extent of saturation was quantified for 136 low-threshold MUs during isometric ramp contractions. Firing rate-force data were best fit by a saturating function for 90% of MUs recorded with a maximum rate of 14.8 ± 2.0 impulses/s. In the second set of experiments, to distinguish extrinsic from intrinsic factors underlying saturation, we artificially augmented descending excitatory drive to biceps MNs by activation of muscle spindle afferents through tendon vibration. We examined the change in firing rate caused by tendon vibration in 96 MUs that were voluntarily activated at rates below and at saturation. Vibration had little effect on the discharge of MUs that were firing at saturation frequencies but strongly increased firing rates of the same units when active at lower frequencies. These results indicate that saturation is likely caused by intrinsic mechanisms that prevent further increases in firing rate in the presence of increasing synaptic excitation. Possible intrinsic cellular mechanisms that limit firing rates of motor units during voluntary effort are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1310-1322
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2015


  • Firing rate
  • Force
  • Motor neuron
  • Motor unit
  • Saturation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Physiology


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