1. The force-velocity relationship of a motor unit can provide insight into the contractile proteins of its constituent fibers as well as fundamental information about the function and use of the motor unit. Although the force-velocity profiles of whole muscle and skinned mammalian fibers have been studied, technical difficulties have prevented similar studies on motor units. A technique is presented to directly measure the velocity of shortening of individual motor units from in vivo rat soleus muscle. 2. The soleus muscles of anesthetized rats were dissected free of surrounding tissue while their nerve and blood supplies were preserved. Both tendons were cut, and the distal tendon was attached to a servomechanism to control muscle length, whereas the proximal tendon was attached to a force transducer. Single motor units were stimulated via the ventral roots. 3. The major problem encountered in measuring the force-velocity profile of a motor unit was that the force from the large number of passive fibers and connective tissue in the soleus confounded the force produced by the small number of active fibers in the motor unit. This problem was minimized by measuring active motor unit tension during an isovelocity ramp. This allowed experimental measurement of the passive tension by shortening the muscle with an identical isovelocity ramp without, however, stimulating the motor unit. Active tension was estimated by subtracting the passive tension waveform from the waveform recorded when the motor unit was active. 4. The method substantially reduced the noise from the passive fibers; however, problems remained. The probable sources of error are discussed, with the most significant being the elasticity associated with the blood and nerve connections to surrounding tissue. The elasticity prevents uniform shortening velocities along the length of the active fibers, thereby introducing a systematic bias to measurements made at high velocities. These errors are most pronounced when the data are extrapolated to determine the maximum velocity of shortening (V(max)). Determination of velocity at peak power (V(pp)) is a more robust measure; however, of the 34 motor units studied, only 19 exhibited a distinct peak in the power-force curve, indicating residual noise. 5. To assess the validity of using twitch contraction time as an index of the velocity of shortening, when possible, V(max) and V(pp) of each motor unit were correlated with the inverse of its twitch contraction time. The correlation was poor (r < 0.2), indicating that, although widely used, twitch contraction time is a poor index of contractile speed.
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