Human motor unit synchrony and its relation to force steadiness
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Motor unit synchronization is phenomenon driven by a common input that results in the near-simultaneous firing of two or more motor units, which is referred to as short-term synchronization. The relationship between motor unit synchronization and force steadiness is still unclear, even after numerous experiments and simulations. Our main hypothesis was that the decreased force tetanus brought on by motor unit synchronization would be correlated to reduced steadiness at very low hand muscle forces. To determine if this correlation existed, young, healthy adults performed a submaximal, isometric pinch at four forces to determine if motor unit synchronization increased with a progressive decrease in force steadiness driven by reduced force levels. However, before performing synchronization analyses, we had to establish the best technique for measuring motor unit coherence, which quantifies the strength and frequency of a periodic common input. We used a pool of simulated spike trains with various firing rates, coefficients of variation (CV), common input frequencies and trial durations to explore the effects of data segmentation and spike train properties on coherence. We found that tapered segments overlapped by at least 50% maximized coherence measurements, regardless of taper type and that increasing common input frequency CV from 0.15-0.50 made coherence measurements unusable, even at high synchronization levels. During an isometric pinch at 2, 4, 8, and 12% of maximum digit force, we recorded thumb and index finger forces and EMG from the first dorsal interosseous (FDI) and adductor pollicis (AdP) muscles. As expected, the force CV dropped as each digit force increased. Pooled coherence revealed a dominant peak for the 2-10 Hz, but power for both digits' forces was limited to the 0-2 Hz bandwidth. There was a weak correlation for thumb force CV and coherence for within-AdP pairs, but no significant correlations were found for within-FDI pair coherence and finger force CV. Therefore, motor unit synchronization was not a strong driver of force steadiness for this protocol. To ensure that inherent firing rate nonstationarity of spike train data did not affect coherence measurements, we produced a new set of spike train pairs with firing rates and variances that approximated those for physiological motor units, which varied from 0-25%. Stationarity level was not significantly correlated to peak coherence (max R² = 0.082). Therefore, coherence measurements of spike train data with characteristics similar to those of the simulated trains were not significantly affected by nonstationarity. The establishment of the best method for computing coherence, the lack of a strong correlation between force steadiness and motor unit synchronization for submaximal isometric forces, and the knowledge that spike train nonstationarity has no significant effect on coherence measurements are all important discoveries needed for progress in the areas of basic neuromuscular function, motor unit synchronization, and pathological force unsteadiness.