Robust and accurate decoding of motoneuron behaviour and prediction of the resulting force output

Christopher K. Thompson, Francesco Negro, Michael D. Johnson, Matthew R. Holmes, Laura Miller McPherson, Randall K. Powers, Dario Farina*, Charles J. Heckman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


Key points: The spinal alpha motoneuron is the only cell in the human CNS whose discharge can be routinely recorded in humans. We have reengineered motor unit collection and decomposition approaches, originally developed in humans, to measure the neural drive to muscle and estimate muscle force generation in the in vivo cat model. Experimental, computational, and predictive approaches are used to demonstrate the validity of this approach across a wide range of modes to activate the motor pool. The utility of this approach is shown through the ability to track individual motor units across trials, allowing for better predictions of muscle force than the electromyography signal, and providing insights in to the stereotypical discharge characteristics in response to synaptic activation of the motor pool. This approach now allows for a direct link between the intracellular data of single motoneurons, the discharge properties of motoneuron populations, and muscle force generation in the same preparation. Abstract: The discharge of a spinal alpha motoneuron and the resulting contraction of its muscle fibres represents the functional quantum of the motor system. Recent advances in the recording and decomposition of the electromyographic signal allow for the identification of several tens of concurrently active motor units. These detailed population data provide the potential to achieve deep insights into the synaptic organization of motor commands. Yet most of our understanding of the synaptic input to motoneurons is derived from intracellular recordings in animal preparations. Thus, it is necessary to extend the new electrode and decomposition methods to recording of motor unit populations in these same preparations. To achieve this goal, we use high-density electrode arrays and decomposition techniques, analogous to those developed for humans, to record and decompose the activity of tens of concurrently active motor units in a hindlimb muscle in the in vivo cat. Our results showed that the decomposition method in this animal preparation was highly accurate, with conventional two-source validation providing rates of agreement equal to or superior to those found in humans. Multidimensional reconstruction of the motor unit action potential provides the ability to accurately track the same motor unit across multiple contractions. Additionally, correlational analyses demonstrate that the composite spike train provides better estimates of whole muscle force than conventional estimates obtained from the electromyographic signal. Lastly, stark differences are observed between the modes of activation, in particular tendon vibration produced quantal interspike intervals at integer multiples of the vibration period.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2643-2659
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of physiology
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 15 2018


  • EMG
  • cat model
  • decomposition
  • high-density
  • motor unit
  • muscle

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology


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