Motoneuron excitability of the quadriceps decreases during a fatiguing submaximal isometric contraction

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Journal Article
Journal of Applied Physiology, 2018, 124 (4), pp. 970 - 979
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Copyright © 2018 American Physiological Society. All rights reserved. During fatiguing voluntary contractions, the excitability of motoneurons innervating arm muscles decreases. However, the behavior of motoneurons innervating quadriceps muscles is unclear. Findings may be inconsistent because descending cortical input influences motoneuron excitability and confounds measures during exercise. To overcome this limitation, we examined effects of fatigue on quadriceps motoneuron excitability tested during brief pauses in descending cortical drive after transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Participants (n = 14) performed brief (5-s) isometric knee extension contractions before and after a 10-min sustained contraction at 25% maximal electromyogram (EMG) of vastus medialis (VM) on one (n - 5) or two (n = 9) days. Electrical stimulation over thoracic spine elicited thoracic motor evoked potentials (TMEP) in quadriceps muscles during ongoing voluntary drive and 100 ms into the silent period following TMS (TMS-TMEP). Femoral nerve stimulation elicited maximal M-waves (Mmax). On the 2 days, either large (50% Mmax) or small (15% Mmax) TMS-TMEPs were elicited. During the 10-min contraction, VM EMG was maintained (P = 0.39), whereas force decreased by 52% (SD 13%) (P < 0.001). TMEP area remained unchanged (P = 0.9), whereas large TMS-TMEPs decreased by 49% (SD 28%) (P = 0.001) and small TMS-TMEPs by 71% (SD 22%) (P < 0.001). This decline was greater for small TMS-TMEPs (P = 0.019; n = 9). Therefore, without the influence of descending drive, quadriceps TMS-TMEPs decreased during fatigue. The greater reduction for smaller responses, which tested motoneurons that were most active during the contraction, suggests a mechanism related to repetitive activity contributes to reduced quadriceps motoneuron excitability during fatigue. By contrast, the unchanged TMEP suggests that ongoing drive compensates for altered motoneuron excitability. NEW & NOTEWORTHY We provide evidence that the excitability of quadriceps motoneurons decreases with fatigue. Our results suggest that altered intrinsic properties brought about by repetitive activation of the motoneurons underlie their decreased excitability. Furthermore, we note that testing during voluntary contraction may not reflect the underlying depression of motoneuron excitability because of compensatory changes in ongoing voluntary drive. Thus, this study provides evidence that processes intrinsic to the motoneuron contribute to muscle fatigue of the knee extensors.
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