Estimates of persistent inward currents are reduced in upper limb motor units of older adults

Altamash S. Hassan, Melissa E. Fajardo, Mark Cummings, Laura Miller McPherson, Francesco Negro, Julius P.A. Dewald, C. J. Heckman, Gregory E.P. Pearcey*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Abstract: Ageing is a natural process causing alterations in the neuromuscular system, which contributes to reduced quality of life. Motor unit (MU) contributes to weakness, but the mechanisms underlying reduced firing rates are unclear. Persistent inward currents (PICs) are crucial for initiation, gain control and maintenance of motoneuron firing, and are directly proportional to the level of monoaminergic input. Since concentrations of monoamines (i.e. serotonin and noradrenaline) are reduced with age, we sought to determine if estimates of PICs are reduced in older (>60 years old) compared to younger adults (<35 years old). We decomposed MU spike trains from high-density surface electromyography over the biceps and triceps brachii during isometric ramp contractions to 20% of maximum. Estimates of PICs (ΔFrequency; or simply ΔF) were computed using the paired MU analysis technique. Regardless of the muscle, peak firing rates of older adults were reduced by ∼1.6 pulses per second (pps) (P = 0.0292), and ΔF was reduced by ∼1.9 pps (P < 0.0001), compared to younger adults. We further found that age predicted ΔF in older adults (P = 0.0261), resulting in a reduction of ∼1 pps per decade, but there was no relationship in younger adults (P = 0.9637). These findings suggest that PICs are reduced in the upper limbs of older adults during submaximal isometric contractions. Reduced PIC magnitude represents one plausible mechanism for reduced firing rates and function in older individuals, but further work is required to understand the implications in other muscles and during a variety of motor tasks. Key points: Persistent inward currents play an important role in the neural control of human movement and are influenced by neuromodulation via monoamines originating in the brainstem. During ageing, motor unit firing rates are reduced, and there is deterioration of brainstem nuclei, which may reduce persistent inward currents in alpha motoneurons. Here we show that estimates of persistent inward currents (ΔF) of both elbow flexor and extensor motor units are reduced in older adults. Estimates of persistent inward currents have a negative relationship with age in the older adults, but not in the young. This novel mechanism may play a role in the alteration of motor firing rates that occurs with ageing, which may have consequences for motor control.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4865-4882
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of physiology
Issue number21
StatePublished - Nov 1 2021


  • ageing
  • motoneuron
  • motor unit decomposition
  • neuromodulation
  • persistent inward current

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology


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