Group III and IV muscle afferents have been shown to be sensitive to both mechanical stimuli and metabolic and thermal changes in muscle. To establish the potential role of slowly conducting muscle afferents in regulating motor output during fatigue, we recorded from mechanically sensitive group III and nonspindle group II afferents originating in the triceps surae in barbiturate-anesthetized cats. We evaluated the response of these afferents to tetanic muscle contraction, stretch, and surface pressure, before, during, and after fatigue. Our results show that muscle fatigue both increases spontaneous discharge in these mechanically sensitive afferents and sensitizes their response to muscle stretch, surface pressure, and, in a few instances, muscle contraction. These fatigue-induced changes typically occurred after 5-10 min of submaximal fatiguing stimulation. During recovery from muscle fatigue, several contraction-sensitive free nerve endings, which had become sensitized to contractions during fatigue, remained sensitized after 20-30 min of rest. The results of this study provide support for the hypothesis that fatigue-induced excitation of slowly conducting afferents is significant in mediating fatigue-induced inhibition of motoneuron output. However, our finding that the discharge of many slowly conducting mechanoreceptor afferents declines during the initial phase of fatigue argues against a primary role for these afferents in mediating the initial decline in motoneuron rate that is so prominent in fatiguing maximum voluntary muscular contraction.
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