One potential expression of altered motoneuron excitability following a hemispheric stroke is the spontaneous unit firing (SUF) of motor units at rest. The elements contributing to this altered excitability could be spinal descending pathways, spinal interneuronal networks, afferent feedback, or intrinsic motoneuron properties. Our purpose was to examine the characteristics of spontaneous discharge in spastic- paretic and contralateral muscles of hemiparetic stroke survivors, to determine which of these mechanisms might contribute. To achieve this objective, we examined the statistics of spontaneous discharge of individual motor units and we conducted a coherence analyses on spontaneously firing motor unit pairs. The presence of significant coherence between units might indicate a common driving source of excitation to multiple motoneurons from descending pathways or regional interneurons, whereas a consistent lack of coherence might favor an intrinsic cellular mechanism of hyperexcitability. Spontaneous firing of motor units (i.e., ongoing discharge in the absence of an ongoing stimulus) was observed to a greater degree in spastic-paretic muscles (following 83.2 ± 16.7% of ramp contractions) than that in contralateral muscles (following just 14.1 ± 10.5% of ramp contractions; P < 0.001) and was not observed at all in healthy control muscle. The average firing rates of the spontaneously firing units were 8.4 ± 1.8 pulses/s (pps) in spastic-paretic muscle and 9.6 ± 2.2 pps in contralateral muscle (P < 0.001). In 37 instances (n > 63 pairs), we observed spontaneous discharge of two or more motor units simultaneously in spastic-paretic muscle. Seventy percent of the dually firing motor unit pairs exhibited significant coherence (P < 0.001) in the 0-to 4-Hz bandwidth (average peak coherence: 0.14 ± 0.13; range: 0.01- 0.75) and 22% of pairs exhibited significant coherence (P < 0.001) in the 15- to 30-Hz bandwidth (average peak coherence: 0.07 ± 0.06; range: 0.01- 0.31). We suggest that the spontaneous firing was likely not attributable solely to enhanced intrinsic motoneuron activation, but attributable, at least in part, to a low-level excitatory synaptic input to the resting spastic-paretic motoneuron pool, possibly from regional or supraspinal centers.
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