Motor Unit Lab



Dr. Paola Contessa, Research Scientist


In the Motor Unit Laboratory, we have focused our efforts on understanding the strategies that the central nervous system employs in controlling muscle fibers in order to produce smooth muscle force. Our studies have revealed that the central nervous system controls groups of muscle fibers (referred to as motor units) in a very efficient manner whereby a common drive to the motoneuron pool is employed to express the desired motion and the responses of individual motor units to this common drive are prescribed in a very orderly fashion that is extremely well matched to their mechanical and fatigue properties.

In the recent years, we have focused our attention on the effects of the natural aging process on these control strategies. We have found that the known age-related changes in muscle morphology and innervation are indeed accompanied by significant modifications in control properties. We have observed considerable disturbances to the orderly activation patterns of motor units in the elderly, which are most likely associated with the age-related decline in motor function.

Our ongoing work is geared toward understanding how participation in exercise programs effects motor unit control in the elderly. It is our goal to determine the effects of exercise programs on the control of motor units so that smart exercise regimens can be designed specifically for the elderly. Furthermore, we hope to achieve objective measures of the effectiveness of an exercise or rehabilitation intervention, in addition to determining the individuals who are most likely to benefit from an exercise program.

Relevant Papers