Motor unit behaviour and contractile changes during fatigue in the human first dorsal interosseus


Corresponding author K. Hainaut: Laboratory of Biology, Université Libre de Bruxelles, 28 avenue P. Héger, CP 168, 1000 Brussels, Belgium. Email:


  • 1In 67 single motor units, the mechanical properties, the recruitment and derecruitment thresholds, and the discharge rates were recorded concurrently in the first dorsal interosseus (FDI) of human subjects during intermittent fatiguing contractions. The task consisted of isometric ramp-and-hold contractions performed at 50% of the maximal voluntary contraction (MVC). The purpose of this study was to examine the influence of fatigue on the behaviour of motor units with a wide range of activation thresholds.
  • 2For low-threshold (< 25% MVC) motor units, the mean twitch force increased with fatigue and the recruitment threshold either did not change or increased. In contrast, the twitch force and the activation threshold decreased for the high-threshold (> 25% MVC) units. The observation that in low-threshold motor units a quick stretch of the muscle at the end of the test reset the unit force and recruitment threshold to the prefatigue value suggests a significant role for fatigue-related changes in muscle stiffness but not twitch potentiation or motor unit synchronization.
  • 3Although the central drive intensified during the fatigue test, as indicated by an increase in surface electromyogram (EMG), the discharge rate of the motor units during the hold phase of each contraction decreased progressively over the course of the task for motor units that were recruited at the beginning of the test, especially the low-threshold units. In contrast, the discharge rates of newly activated units first increased and then decreased.
  • 4Such divergent behaviour of low- and high-threshold motor units could not be individually controlled by the central drive to the motoneurone pool. Rather, the different behaviours must be the consequence of variable contributions from motoneurone adaptation and afferent feedback from the muscle during the fatiguing contraction.