The tongue plays a key role in various volitional and automatic functions such as swallowing, maintenance of airway patency, and speech. Precisely how hypoglossal motor neurons, which control the tongue, receive and process their often concurrent input drives is a subject of ongoing research. We investigated common synaptic input to the hypoglossal motor nucleus by measuring the coordination of spike timing, firing rate, and oscillatory activity across motor units recorded from unilateral (i.e., within a belly) or bilateral (i.e., across both bellies) locations within the genioglossus (GG), the primary protruder muscle of the tongue. Simultaneously recorded pairs of motor units were obtained from 14 healthy adult volunteers using tungsten microelectrodes inserted percutaneously into the GG while the subjects were engaged in volitional tongue protrusion or rest breathing. Bilateral motor unit pairs showed concurrent low frequency alterations in firing rate (common drive) with no significant difference between tasks. Unilateral motor unit pairs showed significantly stronger common drive in the protrusion task compared with rest breathing, as well as higher indices of synchronous spiking (short-term synchrony). Common oscillatory input was assessed using coherence analysis and was observed in all conditions for frequencies up to ∼5 Hz. Coherence at frequencies up to ∼10 Hz was strongest in motor unit pairs recorded from the same GG belly in tongue protrusion. Taken together, our results suggest that cortical drive increases motor unit coordination within but not across GG bellies, while input drive during rest breathing is distributed uniformly to both bellies of the muscle.
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