Inhibition linearizes firing rate responses in human motor units: implications for the role of persistent inward currents

Ann L. Revill, Andrew J. Fuglevand

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Key points: Motor neurons are the output neurons of the central nervous system and are responsible for controlling muscle contraction. When initially activated during voluntary contraction, firing rates of motor neurons increase steeply but then level out at modest rates. Activation of an intrinsic source of excitatory current at recruitment onset may underlie the initial steep increase in firing rate in motor neurons. We attempted to disable this intrinsic excitatory current by artificially activating an inhibitory reflex. When motor neuron activity was recorded while the inhibitory reflex was engaged, firing rates no longer increased steeply, suggesting that the intrinsic excitatory current was probably responsible for the initial sharp rise in motor neuron firing rate. Abstract: During graded isometric contractions, motor unit (MU) firing rates increase steeply upon recruitment but then level off at modest rates even though muscle force continues to increase. The mechanisms underlying such firing behaviour are not known although activation of persistent inward currents (PICs) might be involved. PICs are intrinsic, voltage-dependent currents that activate strongly when motor neurons (MNs) are first recruited. Such activation might cause a sharp escalation in depolarizing current and underlie the steep initial rise in MU firing rate. Because PICs can be disabled with synaptic inhibition, we hypothesized that artificial activation of an inhibitory pathway might curb this initial steep rise in firing rate. To test this, human subjects performed slow triangular ramp contractions of the ankle dorsiflexors in the absence and presence of tonic synaptic inhibition delivered to tibialis anterior (TA) MNs by sural nerve stimulation. Firing rate profiles (expressed as a function of contraction force) of TA MUs recorded during these tasks were compared for control and stimulation conditions. Under control conditions, during the ascending phase of the triangular contractions, 93% of the firing rate profiles were best fitted by rising exponential functions. With stimulation, however, firing rate profiles were best fitted with linear functions or with less steeply rising exponentials. Firing rate profiles for the descending phases of the contractions were best fitted with linear functions for both control and stimulation conditions. These results seem consistent with the idea that PICs contribute to non-linear firing rate profiles during ascending but not descending phases of contractions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)179-191
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Physiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017


  • firing rate
  • inhibition
  • motoneurones
  • motor unit
  • muscle contraction
  • persistent inward currents

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology


Dive into the research topics of 'Inhibition linearizes firing rate responses in human motor units: implications for the role of persistent inward currents'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this