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The motor unit 

The motor unit
Chapter:
The motor unit
Author(s):

David Burke

and James Howells

DOI:
10.1093/med/9780199688395.003.0002
Page of

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date: 30 March 2020

The motor unit represent the final output of the motor system. Each consists of a motoneuron, its axon, neuromuscular junctions, and muscle fibres innervated by that axon. The discharge of a motor unit can be followed by recording its electromyographic signature, the motor unit action potential. Motoneurons are not passive responders to the excitatory and inhibitory influences on them from descending and segmental sources. Their properties can change, e.g. due to descending monoaminergic pathways, which can alter their responses to other inputs (changing ‘reflex gain’). Contraction strength depends on the number of active motor units, their discharge rate, and whether the innervated muscle fibres are slow-twitch producing low force, but resistant to fatigue, fast-twitch producing more force, but susceptible to fatigue, or intermediate fast-twitch fatigue-resistant. These properties are imposed by the parent motoneurons, and the innervated muscle fibres have different histochemical profiles (oxidative, glycolytic, or oxidative-glycolytic, respectively).

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