Limitations of the surface electromyography technique for estimating motor unit synchronization

Guang Yue, Andrew J. Fuglevand, Michael A. Nordstrom, Roger M. Enoka

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36 Scopus citations


Motor unit synchronization was estimated from the surface electromyograms (EMG) of the first dorsal interosseus muscle of human volunteers by a simplified surface-EMG technique (Milner-Brown et al. 1973, 1975). Single motor units were identified from intramuscular recordings and were used to obtain a spike-triggered average of the surface-EMG. The discharge rate of a reference motor unit was controlled at two levels (high and low), and the effect of motor unit activity on the surface-EMG estimate of synchronization was studied in 56 motor units. The surface-EMG estimate of motor unit synchronization was significantly higher when the reference motor unit discharged at the high rate than when it discharged at the low rate. A regression analysis indicated that the synchronization ratio calculated from the surface EMG was significantly correlated with the level of EMG activity in the muscle. Motor unit synchronization was also estimated from surface-EMG measurements that were derived by computer simulation. The simulation permitted manipulation of motor unit activity (discharge rate and recruitment) with a complete absence of synchrony among the units in the pool. The stimulated surface-EMG index was influenced by an artifact associated with signal rectification, and this effect changed non-monotonically with motor unit activity. Furthermore, the increase in the motor unit activity reduced the signal-to-noise ratio of the spike-triggered surface EMG average, and consequently decreased the sensitivity of the surface-EMG index as an estimate of motor unit synchronization. We conclude that the simplified surface-EMG method (Milner-Brown et al. 1973, 1975) does not provide a useful index of motor unit synchronization due to its inability to accurately distinguish the synchronization from methodological effects related to a rectification artifact and variation in the signal-to-noise ratio.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)223-233
Number of pages11
JournalBiological Cybernetics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1995

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Computer Science(all)


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