The genioglossus (GG) is considered the principle protrudor muscle of the human tongue. Unlike most skeletal muscles, GG electromyographic (EMG) activities are robustly preserved in sleep and thus may fulfill a critical role in preserving airway patency. Previous studies in human subjects also confirm that the GG EMG increases in response to chemoreceptor and mechanoreceptor stimulation. This increase occurs secondary to the recruitment of previously inactive motor units (MUs) and/or an increase in firing rate of already active MUs. Which strategy the nervous system uses when the synaptic drive onto GG motoneurons increases is not known. Here we report on GG whole muscle and tonic MU activities under conditions that mimic sleep, i.e., mild-moderate elevations in CO2 (3% inspired CO2 or the addition of a 1.0 l dead space) and elevated airway resistance. Based on previous work in rat, we hypothesized that mild hypercapnia would increase the firing rates of tonic MUs and that these effects would be further potentiated by a modest increase in airway resistance. Fine wire and tungsten microelectrodes were inserted into the GG to record whole muscle and single MU activities in 21 subjects (13 women, 8 men; 20-55 yr). Either 3% inspired CO2 or added dead space resulted in a 200-300% increase in the amplitude of both tonic and phasic components of the whole muscle GG EMG and a doubling of minute ventilation. Despite these changes, recordings obtained from a total of 84 tonically discharging GG single MUs provide no evidence of a change in firing rate under any of the conditions. On this basis we conclude that in healthy adults, the increase in the tonic component of the whole muscle GG EMG secondary to mild hypercapnia is due almost exclusively to the recruitment of previously inactive MUs.
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