Disturbances of Motor Unit Rate Modulation are Prevalent in Muscles of Spastic-Paretic Stroke Survivors

Carol J. Mottram, Charles J Heckman, Randall K Powers, William Zev Rymer, Nina L Suresh


Stroke survivors often exhibit abnormally low motor unit firing rates during voluntary muscle activation. Our purpose was to assess the prevalence of saturation in motor unit firing rates in the spastic-paretic biceps brachii muscle of stroke survivors. To achieve this objective, we recorded the incidence and duration of impaired lower- and higher-threshold motor unit firing rate modulation in spastic-paretic, contralateral, and healthy control muscle during increases in isometric force generated by the elbow flexor muscles. Impaired firing was considered to have occurred when firing rate became constant (i.e. saturated) despite increasing force. The duration of impaired firing rate modulation in the lower-threshold unit was longer for spastic-paretic (3.9 ± 2.2s) than for contralateral (1.4 ± 0.9s; P < 0.001) and control (1.1 ± 1.0s; P = 0.005) muscles. The duration of impaired firing rate modulation in the higher-threshold unit was also longer for the spastic-paretic (1.7 ± 1.6s) than contralateral (0.3 ± 0.3s; P = 0.007) and control (0.1 ± 0.2s; P = 0.009) muscles. This impaired firing rate of the lower-threshold unit arose despite an increase in the overall descending command, as shown by the recruitment of the higher-threshold unit during the time that the lower-threshold unit was saturating, and by the continuous increase in EMG of the biceps brachii muscle throughout the rising phase of the contraction. These results suggest that impairments in firing rate modulation are prevalent in motor units of spastic-paretic muscle even when the overall descending command to the muscle is increasing.

  • spasticity
  • stroke
  • PIC
  • saturation
  • motor unit