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    Effect of ageing on the electrical and mechanical properties of human soleus motor units activated by the H reflex and M wave

    Scaglioni, Gil, Maffiuletti, Nicola A., Narici, Marco V. and Pensini, Manuela (2003) Effect of ageing on the electrical and mechanical properties of human soleus motor units activated by the H reflex and M wave. The journal of physiology, 548 (2). 649-661.. ISSN 0022-3751

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    This study was designed to investigate the effect of ageing on the mechanical and electromyographic (EMG) characteristics of the soleus motor units (MUs) activated by the maximal Hoffmann reflex (Hmax) and by the direct muscle compound action potential (Mmax). Eleven young (mean age 25 ± 4 years) and ten elderly (mean age 73 ± 5 years) males took part in this investigation. The senior group presented lower amplitudes of Mmax (−57 %, P < 0.001) and Hmax (−68 %, P < 0.001) waves compared to the younger population. These were associated with a depression of relative twitch torque of the plantar flexors. The average values of the Hmax/Mmax ratio did not statistically differ between the two populations, despite a tendency for lower values (∼23 %) in the senior group. However, the older adults showed a greater relative amplitude of the sub-maximal M wave evoked at Hmax (MatHmax) than did the younger males (young 5 % vs. elderly 29 % of the Mmax, P < 0.01). This finding suggests an increased homogeneity between the excitability threshold of sensory and motor axons. The twitch torque at Hmax (PtH–M) was subsequently calculated by subtraction from the total twitch torque of the mechanical contamination associated with MatHmax. The resulting PtH–M was significantly lower in the elderly (−59 %, P < 0.001). Despite a discrepancy of 20 % between the two groups, the mechanical ratio (PtH–M/PtM; PtM, twitch tension related to the Mmax compound action potential), like the EMG ratio, did not statistically differ between the young and older individuals. Nevertheless, the senior subjects exhibited a higher twitch/EMG ratio for the reflexively activated MUs (PtH–M/Hmax) than the younger individuals (+40 %, P < 0.05). This finding suggests an on-going neuromuscular remodelling, resulting in an increased innervation ratio. The neural rearrangement may be viewed as a compensatory adaptation of the motor system to preserve the mechanical efficiency of the surviving MUs, despite the age-related impairment of the segmental reflex system. This phenomenon is confirmed by the maintenance, with senescence, of the approximately constant values of the twitch/EMG ratio for the entire motor pool (PtM/Mmax).

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