We used surface EMG signal decomposition technology to study the control properties of numerous simultaneously active motor units. Six healthy human subjects of comparable age (21 +/- 0.63 yr) and physical fitness were recruited to perform isometric contractions of the vastus lateralis (VL), first dorsal interosseous (FDI), and tibialis anterior (TA) muscles at the 20, 50, 80, and 100% maximum voluntary contraction force levels. EMG signals were collected with a five-pin surface array sensor that provided four channels of data. They were decomposed into the constituent action potentials with a new decomposition algorithm. The firings of a total of 1,273 motor unit action potential trains, 20-30 per contraction, were obtained. The recruitment thresholds and mean firing rates of the motor units were calculated, and mathematical equations were derived. The results describe a hierarchical inverse relationship between the recruitment thresholds and the firing rates, including the first and second derivatives, i.e., the velocity and the acceleration of the firing rates. This relationship describes an "operating point" for the motoneuron pool that remains consistent at all force levels and is modulated by the excitation. This relationship differs only slightly between subjects and more distinctly across muscles. These results support the "onion skin" property that suggests a basic control scheme encoded in the physical properties of motoneurons that responds consistently to a "common drive" to the motoneuron pool.
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