Motoneuron excitability: The importance of neuromodulatory inputs

C. J. Heckman*, Carol Mottram, Kathy Quinlan, Renee Theiss, Jenna Schuster

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

159 Scopus citations


The excitability of spinal motoneurons is both fundamental for motor behavior and essential in diagnosis of neural disorders. There are two mechanisms for altering this excitability. The classic mechanism is mediated by synaptic inputs that depolarize or hyperpolarize motoneurons by generating postsynaptic potentials. This "ionotropic" mechanism works via neurotransmitters that open ion channels in the cell membrane. In the second mechanism, neurotransmitters bind to receptors that activate intracellular signaling pathways. These pathways modulate the properties of the voltage-sensitive channels that determine the intrinsic input-output properties of motoneurons. This "neuromodulatory" mechanism usually does not directly activate motoneurons but instead dramatically alters the neuron's response to ionotropic inputs. We present extensive evidence that neuromodulatory inputs exert a much more powerful effect on motoneuron excitability than ionotropic inputs. The most potent neuromodulators are probably serotonin and norepinephrine, which are released by axons originating in the brainstem and can increase motoneuron excitability fivefold or more. Thus, the standard tests of motoneuron excitability (H-reflexes, tendon taps, tendon vibration and stretch reflexes) are strongly influenced by the level of neuromodulatory input to motoneurons. This insight is likely to be profoundly important for clinical diagnosis and treatment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2040-2054
Number of pages15
JournalClinical Neurophysiology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2009


  • Motoneuron
  • Motor neuron
  • Neuromodulation
  • Norepinephrine
  • Reflex
  • Reflex excitability
  • Serotonin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sensory Systems
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Physiology (medical)


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