Contractile properties of human motor units in health, aging, and disease
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The primary function of skeletal muscle is to produce force for postural control and movement. Although the contractile properties of the whole muscle are useful functional indicators, they do not accurately reflect the heterogeneity of the constituent motor units (MUs) and their changes in health and disease. However, data on the contractile properties of human MUs, in comparison to other animal species, are relatively sparse. This, in part, is due to greater methodological challenges of in vivo studies of MUs in the human. The purpose of this review is to critically appraise the methods used in humans; to describe the normative data from different muscle groups; to discuss differences between data from healthy humans and other animal species; and, last, to characterize changes of the MU contractile properties in aging, disease, and in response to intervention. Because the spike-triggered averaging technique can only be used to study the twitch properties, other methods were subsequently developed to measure a wider range of contractile properties. Although there is general agreement between human data and those from other animal species, major differences do exist. Potential reasons for these discrepancies include true biological differences, but differences in the techniques used may also be responsible. Although limited, measurement of MU contractile properties in humans has provided insight into the changes associated with aging and motoneuronal diseases and provides a means of gauging their adaptive capacity for training and immobilization.
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