Effects of fatigue on corticospinal excitability of the human knee extensors

David S Kennedy, Chris J McNeil, Simon C Gandevia, Janet L Taylor
Experimental Physiology 2016 December 1, 101 (12): 1552-1564
What is the central question of this study? Do group III and IV muscle afferents act at the spinal or cortical level to affect the ability of the central nervous system to drive quadriceps muscles during fatiguing exercise? What is the main finding and its importance? The excitability of the motoneurone pool of vastus lateralis was unchanged by feedback from group III and IV muscle afferents. In contrast, feedback from these afferents may contribute to inhibition at the cortex. However, the excitability of the corticospinal pathway was not directly affected by feedback from these afferents. These findings are important for understanding neural processes during fatiguing exercise. In upper limb muscles, changes in afferent feedback, motoneurone excitability, and motor cortical output can contribute to failure of the central nervous system to recruit muscles fully during fatigue. It is not known whether similar changes occur with fatigue of muscles in the lower limb. We assessed the corticospinal pathway to vastus lateralis during fatiguing sustained maximal voluntary contractions (MVCs) of the knee extensors and during firing of fatigue-sensitive group III/IV muscle afferents maintained by postexercise ischaemia after fatiguing MVCs of the knee extensors and, separately, the flexors. In two experiments, subjects (n = 9) performed brief knee extensor MVCs before and after 2-min sustained MVCs of the knee extensors (experiment 1) or knee flexors (experiment 2). During MVCs, motor evoked potentials (MEPs) were elicited by transcranial magnetic stimulation over the motor cortex and thoracic motor evoked potentials (TMEPs) by electrical stimulation over the thoracic spine. During the 2-min extensor contraction, the size of vastus lateralis MEPs normalized to the maximal M-wave increased (P < 0.05), but normalized TMEPs were unchanged (P = 0.16). After the 2-min MVC, maintained firing of group III/IV muscle afferents had no effect on vastus lateralis MEPs or TMEPs (P = 0.18 and P = 0.50, respectively). Likewise, after the 2-min knee flexor MVC, maintained firing of these afferents showed no effect on vastus lateralis MEPs or TMEPs (P = 0.69 and P = 0.34, respectively). Motoneurones of vastus lateralis do not become less excitable during fatiguing isometric MVCs. Moreover, fatigue-sensitive group III/IV muscle afferents fail to affect the overall excitability of vastus lateralis motoneurones during MVCs.

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