Modulation of motor unit activation rate is a fundamental process by which the mammalian nervous system encodes muscle force. To identify how rate coding of force may change as a consequence of fatigue, intraneural microstimulation of motor axons was used to elicit twitch and force-frequency responses before and after 2 min of intermittent stimulation (40-Hz train for 330 ms, 1 train/s) in single motor units of human long finger flexor muscles and intrinsic hand muscles. Before fatigue, two groups of units could be distinguished based on the stimulus frequency needed to elicit half-maximal force; group 1 (n = 8) required 9 1 ± 0.5 Hz (means ± SD), and group 2 (n = 5) required 15.5 ± 1.1 Hz. Twitch contraction times were significantly different between these two groups (group 1 = 66. 5 ms; group 2 = 45.9 ms). Overall 18% of the units were fatigue resistant [fatigue index (FI) > 0.75], 64% had intermediate fatigue sensitivity (0.25 ≤ FI ≤ 0.75), and 18% were fatigable (FI < 0.25). However, fatigability and tetanic force were not significantly different among groups. Therefore unlike findings in some other mammals, fast-contracting motor units were neither stronger nor more susceptible to fatigue than slowly contracting units. Fatigue, however, was found to be greatest in those units that initially exerted the largest forces. Despite significant slowing of contractile responses, fatigue caused the force-frequency relation to become displaced toward higher frequencies (44 ± 41% increase in frequency for half-maximal force). Moreover, the greatest shift in the force-frequency relation occurred among those units exhibiting the largest force loss. A selective deficit in force at low frequencies of stimulation persisted for several minutes after the fatigue task. Overall, these findings suggest that with fatigue higher activation rates must be delivered to motor units to maintain the same relative level of force. Questions regarding classification of motor units and possible mechanisms by which fatigue-related slowing might coexist with a shift in the force-frequency curve toward higher frequencies are discussed.
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