Evidence for strong synaptic coupling between single tactile afferents and motoneurones supplying the human hand

P. A. McNulty, K. S. Türker, V. G. Macefield

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1. Electrical stimulation of digital nerves elicits short-latency excitatory and inhibitory spinal reflex responses in ongoing EMG in muscles acting on the fingers and thumb. Similar responses are elicited by stimulating a population of muscle spindles but not when a single muscle spindle is activated. The current study investigated whether short-latency EMG responses could be evoked from the discharge of a single cutaneous afferent. 2. Thirty-three tactile afferents were recorded via tungsten microelectrodes in the median nerve of awake humans. Spike-triggered averaging revealed EMG events time-locked to the afferent discharge. The afferents were activated by an external probe and the EMG was elicited by a weak voluntary contraction. 3. Eleven cutaneous afferents (33%) showed a short-latency response in the ongoing EMG. Overt increases or decreases in EMG were observed for seven afferents (onset latency 20.0-41.1 ms). For four slowly adapting (SA) type II afferents, EMG showed a periodicity that was correlated to the afferent interspike interval (r = 0.99). 4. The EMG associated with two rapidly adapting (FA) type I afferents (29%) showed a short-latency excitation while five showed neither excitation nor inhibition. Seven SA II afferents (39%) showed excitation and 11 no response; and none of the six SA I afferents showed any response. 5. We conclude that, unlike muscle spindle afferents, the input from a single cutaneous afferent is strong enough to drive, via interneurones, motoneurones supplying muscles acting on the digits. The potent short-latency response we found supports the important role of cutaneous mechanoreceptors in fine motor control of the human hand.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)883-893
Number of pages11
JournalThe Journal of Physiology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 1999
Externally publishedYes

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