Spinal cord injury may change both the distribution and the strength of the synaptic input within a motoneuron pool and therefore alter force gradation. Here, we have studied the relative contributions of motor unit recruitment and rate modulation to force gradation during voluntary contractions of thenar muscles performed by five individuals with chronic (>1 yr) cervical spinal cord injury. Mean ± SD thenar unit firing rates were low during both steady-level 25% (8.3 ± 2.2 Hz, n= 27 units) and 100% maximal voluntary contractions (MVCs, 9.2 ± 3.1 Hz, n = 23 units). Thus modest rate modulation, or a lack of it in some units, was seen despite an average fourfold increase in integrated surface electromyographic activity and force. During ramp contractions, units were recruited at 5.7 ± 2.5 Hz, but still only reached maximal firing rates of 12.8 ± 4.9 Hz. Motor units were recruited up to 85% of the maximal force achieved (14.6 ± 5.6 N). In contrast, unit recruitment in control hand muscles is largely complete by 30% MVC. Thus, during voluntary contractions of thenar muscles weakened by cervical spinal cord injury, motor unit rate modulation was limited and recruitment occurred over a wider than usual force range. Those motor units that were stopped voluntarily had significantly lower derecruitment versus recruitment thresholds. However, 8 units (24%) continued to fire long after the signal to end the voluntary contraction at a mean frequency of 5.9 ± 0.8 Hz. The forces generated by this prolonged unit activity ranged from 0.3 to 7.2% maximum. Subjects were unable to stop this involuntary unit activity even with the help of feedback. The mechanisms that underlie this prolonged motor unit firing need to be explored further.
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