1. The aim of this study was to examine the extent of muscle-unit force modulation due to motoneuron firing-rate variation in type-identified motor units of the cat medial gastrocnemius (MG) muscle, and to investigate the contribution of muscle-unit force modulation to whole-muscle force regulation. The motoneuron discharge patterns recorded from 8 pairs of motor units during 12 smoothly graded muscle contractions evoked by stimulation of the mesencephalic locomotor region (MLR) were used to reactivate those units in isolation to estimate what their force profiles would have been like during the evoked whole-muscle contractions. 2. For most motor units, muscle-unit force modulation was similar to motoneuron firing-rate modulation, in that muscle-unit force increased over a limited range (120-600 g) of increasing whole-muscle tension and was then maintained at a near maximal (>70%) output level as muscle force continued to rise. Most muscle units also decreased their force outputs over a slightly larger range of declining whole-muscle force before relaxing. This second finding was best explained by the counterclockwise hysteresis recorded in the motor units' frequency-tension (f-t) relationships. 3. In those instances when whole-muscle force fluctuated just above the recruitment threshold of a motor unit, a substantial percentage (10-25%) of the change in whole-muscle force could be accounted for by force modulation in that motor unit alone. This finding suggested that few motor units in the pool were simultaneously undergoing force modulation. To evaluate this possibility, the extent of parallel muscle-unit force modulation within the 8 pairs of simultaneously active motor units was evaluated. As with parallel motoneuron firing-rate modulation, the extent of parallel muscle-unit force modulation was limited to unit pairs of the same physiological type and recruitment threshold. In several instances, pairs of motor units displayed parallel motoneuron firing-rate modulation but did not show parallel muscle-unit force modulation because of the nature of the motor units' f-t relationships. 4. The limited extent of parallel muscle-unit force modulation seen in these experiments implies that the major strategy for force modulation in the cat MG muscle, involving contractions estimated to reach 30-40% of maximum, may be motor-unit recruitment rather than motor-unit firing-rate variation with resulting force modulation. Given, however, that the majority of motor units are already recruited at these output levels (<40%), it is proposed that motor-unit firing-rate variation with resulting force modulation may take over as the major muscle force modulating strategy at higher output levels.
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