The resilience of the size principle in the organization of motor unit properties in normal and reinnervated adult skeletal muscles

Tessa Gordon, Christine K. Thomas, John B. Munson, Richard B. Stein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


Henneman's size principle relates the input and output properties of motoneurons and their muscle fibers to size and is the basis for size-ordered activation or recruitment of motor units during movement. After nerve injury and surgical repair, the relationship between motoneuron size and the number and size of the muscle fibers that the motoneuron reinnervates is initially lost but returns with time, irrespective of whether the muscles are self- or cross-reinnervated by the regenerated axons. Although the return of the size relationships was initially attributed to the recovery of the cross-sectional area of the reinnervated muscle fibers and their force per fiber, direct enumeration of the innervation ratio and the number of muscle fibers per motoneuron demonstrated that a size-dependent branching of axons accounts for the size relationships in normal muscle, as suggested by Henneman and his colleagues. This same size-dependent branching accounts for the rematching of motoneuron size and muscle unit size in reinnervated muscles. Experiments were carried out to determine whether the daily amount of neuromuscular activation of motor units accounts for the size-dependent organization and reorganization of motor unit properties. The normal size-dependent matching of motoneurons and their muscle units with respect to the numbers of muscle fibers per motoneuron was unaltered by synchronous activation of all of the motor units with the same daily activity. Hence, the restored size relationships and rematching of motoneuron and muscle unit properties after nerve injuries and muscle reinnervation sustain the normal gradation of muscle force during movement by size-ordered recruitment of motor units and the process of rate coding of action potentials. Dynamic modulation of size of muscle fibers and their contractile speed and endurance by neuromuscular activity allows for neuromuscular adaptation in the context of the sustained organization of the neuromuscular system according to the size principle.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)645-661
Number of pages17
JournalCanadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology
Issue number8-9
StatePublished - Aug 1 2004


  • Innervation ratio
  • Motor unit recruitment
  • Motor unit size
  • Reinnervation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Pharmacology


Dive into the research topics of 'The resilience of the size principle in the organization of motor unit properties in normal and reinnervated adult skeletal muscles'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this