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Intro to

motor systems

(why else would
you go to the gym,

What are lower motor neurons

Located in:
- Anterior grey column
- Anterior nerve roots (spinal LMN) controls voluntary
muscle movement

- Cranial nerve nuclei of brainstem

- Cranial nerves with motor function (cranial nerve LMN)

Types of LMN
There are 3 types of LMN:
1. Alpha (-MNs) involved in muscle contraction (shortens muscle bulk);
innervates extrafusal muscle fibres
2. Beta (-MNs) involved in endurance activities; innervates intrafusal
(slow twitch) muscle fibres (these fibres warm up slowly and are more ATP-efficient,
making them good for long-distance exercise)

3. Gamma (-MNs) innervate intrafusal fibres which, together with

sensory afferents, contracts muscle spindles; used for proprioception

Arrangement of lower motor

Proximal = medial
Distal = lateral
Flexors = posterior, but in front of extensors
Extensors = posterior, dorsal to flexors

Some definitions
Motor unit = single alpha-MN and the muscle fibres it innervates
Motor neuron pool = collection of alpha-MN and the muscle it
NB: a single muscle is made up of many muscle fibres!
Motor recruitment = the process of producing graded muscle
contractions depending on the action required e.g. gripping a pencil vs
throwing a discus
This depends on 3 things:
- Firing rate (faster & more frequent firing rate = stronger contraction)
- No. of motor units (more motor units recruited = stronger)
- Size of motor units (same as above)

What is the myotatic reflex?

Myotatic reflex = stretch reflex
If muscle lengthens, muscle spindle stretches
Muscle spindle stretching results in increased alpha MN activity
Muscle fibres will then contract to counteract stretching
Functions to maintain constant muscle length

Myotatic reflex explained

Muscle spindles monitor muscle length
- Group 1a sensory neurons can sense stretch on
alpha motor neurons
- Considered monosynaptic i.e. only one synapse
Between 2 different types of neurons

HOWEVER, After extrafusal fibres have contracted, the muscle

spindle is slack hence, during this period, it technically cant
sense or signal muscle length (taut wire)

Gamma co-activation
Bear in mindalpha MN shortens extrafusal fibres
once shortened, cannot detect change in muscle length
In order to compensate, gamma MN are activated
Gamma MN shortens muscle spindles i.e. if both were
shortened, muscle spindle would no longer be slack; can
once again signal muscle length

What actually signals muscle

Muscle tension is signalled by a particular body, known as the
Golgi tendon organ (1B axons)
This activates the REVERSE MYOTATIC REFLEX (maintains
muscle tension within optimal range)
1. Increases muscle tension
2. Inhibits alpha MN
3. Reduces rate of muscle contraction

All serves to return muscle to normal tension/length

Reciprocal inhibition &

flexor/crossed-extensor reflexes
Group 1a sensory axons send message to inhibitory interneuron, telling it
to relax the antagonist muscle (within the same action)
E.g. if you want to flex you arm (biceps), your triceps (extensor) will relax
This prevents the myotatic reflex from resisting intentional movement
i.e. on the same side/action
Flexor & crossed-extensor reflexes
If one side flexes, the other side will extend to compensate (think walking
as one foot steps, the other leg will tense to support weight & maintain
i.e. during an action, reflex will happen on the other side

Different types of LMN

1. Nerve damage reduced conduction velocity e.g.
carpal tunnel
2. Denervation fibrillations (increased sensitivity to
3. Degeneration fasciculations (twitch contractions
due to random firing of neurons)
4. Lesions flaccid paralysis (loss of voluntary
movement)/areflexia (loss of reflexes)

Upper motor neurons

Upper motor neurons = sensory neurons = afferents
They are like the command centres which send signals telling muscles what to do.
Synapse in the anterior (ventral) horn of the grey
matter of the spinal cord along with the LMN
Located in the lateral corticospinal tract
Basal ganglia = movement selection & initiation
Cerebellum = everything else