Classical studies of the mammalian neuromuscular system have shown an impressive adaptation match between the intrinsic properties of motoneurons and the contractile properties of their motor units. In these studies, the rate at which motoneurons start to fire repetitively corresponds to the rate at which individual twitches start to sum, and the firing rate increases linearly with the amount of excitation ("primary range") up to the point where the motor unit develops its maximal force. This allows for the gradation of the force produced by a motor unit by rate modulation. In adult mouse motoneurons, however, we recently described a regime of firing ("subprimary range") that appears at lower excitation than what is required for the primary range, a finding that might challenge the classical conception. To investigate the force production of mouse motor units, we simultaneously recorded, for the first time, the motoneuron discharge elicited by intracellular ramps of current and the force developed by its motor unit. We showed that the motor unit developed nearly its maximal force during the subprimary range. This was found to be the case regardless of the input resistance of the motoneuron, the contraction speed, or the tetanic force of the motor unit. Our work suggests that force modulation in small mammals mainly relies on the number of motor units that are recruited rather than on rate modulation of individual motor units.
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