Estimates of persistent inward currents increase with the level of voluntary drive in low-threshold motor units of plantar flexor muscles
Journal of Neurophysiology
American Physiological Society
School of Medical and Health Sciences / Centre for Exercise and Sports Science Research
This study tested whether estimates of persistent inward currents (PICs) in the human plantar flexors would increase with the level of voluntary drive. High-density surface electromyograms were collected from soleus and gastrocnemius medialis of 21 participants (29.2 ± 2.6 yr) during ramp-shaped isometric contractions to 10%, 20%, and 30% (torque rise and decline of 2%/s and 30-s duration) of each participant’s maximal torque. Motor units identified in all the contraction intensities were included in the paired-motor unit analysis to calculate delta frequency (DF) and estimate the PICs. DF is the difference in discharge rate of the control unit at the time of recruitment and derecruitment of the test unit. Increases in PICs were observed from 10% to 20% [D = 0.6 pulse per second (pps); P < 0.001] and from 20% to 30% (D = 0.5 pps; P < 0.001) in soleus and from 10% to 20% (D = 1.2 pps; P < 0.001) but not from 20% to 30% (D = 0.09 pps; P = 0.724) in gastrocnemius medialis. Maximal discharge rate increased for soleus and gastrocnemius medialis from 10% to 20% [D = 1.75 pps (P < 0.001) and D = 2.43 pps (P < 0.001), respectively] and from 20% to 30% [D = 0.80 pps (P < 0.017) and D = 0.92 pps (P = 0.002), respectively]. The repeated-measures correlation identified associations between DF and increases in maximal discharge rate for soleus (r = 0.64; P < 0.001) and gastrocnemius medialis (r = 0.77; P < 0.001). An increase in voluntary drive tends to increase PIC strength, which has key implications for the control of force but also for comparisons between muscles or studies when relative force levels might be different. Increases in voluntary descending drive amplify PICs in humans and provide an important spinal mechanism for motor unit discharging, and thus force output modulation. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Animal experiments and computational models have shown that motor neurons can amplify the synaptic input they receive via persistent inward currents. Here we show in humans that this amplification varies proportionally to the magnitude of the voluntary drive to the muscle.