Synaptic control of the shape of the motoneuron pool input-output function

Randall K. Powers*, Charles J. Heckman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Although motoneurons have often been considered to be fairly linear transducers of synaptic input, recent evidence suggests that strong persistent inward currents (PICs) in motoneurons allow neuromodulatory and inhibitory synaptic inputs to induce large nonlinearities in the relation between the level of excitatory input and motor output. To try to estimate the possible extent of this nonlinearity, we developed a pool of model motoneurons designed to replicate the characteristics of motoneuron input-output properties measured in medial gastrocnemius motoneurons in the decerebrate cat with voltage-clamp and current-clamp techniques. We drove the model pool with a range of synaptic inputs consisting of various mixtures of excitation, inhibition, and neuromodulation. We then looked at the relation between excitatory drive and total pool output. Our results revealed that the PICs not only enhance gain but also induce a strong nonlinearity in the relation between the average firing rate of the motoneuron pool and the level of excitatory input. The relation between the total simulated force output and input was somewhat more linear because of higher force outputs in later-recruited units. We also found that the nonlinearity can be increased by increasing neuromodulatory input and/or balanced inhibitory input and minimized by a reciprocal, push-pull pattern of inhibition. We consider the possibility that a flexible input-output function may allow motor output to be tuned to match the widely varying demands of the normal motor repertoire. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Motoneuron activity is generally considered to reflect the level of excitatory drive. However, the activation of voltage-dependent intrinsic conductances can distort the relation between excitatory drive and the total output of a pool of motoneurons. Using a pool of realistic motoneuron models, we show that pool output can be a highly nonlinear function of synaptic input but linearity can be achieved through adjusting the time course of excitatory and inhibitory synaptic inputs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1171-1184
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2017


  • Motoneuron pool
  • Motor unit discharge
  • Persistent inward current

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Physiology


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