The purpose of this study was to investigate how the recruitment properties of the corticospinal pathway are modulated in the soleus muscle of the lower limb during lengthening (LEN) and shortening (SHO) contractions by comparing the shape of the input-output (I/O) relation of the corticospinal pathway. To this end, we investigated the relationship between various stimulus intensities applied via transcranial magnetic stimulation and the size of motor-evoked potentials in 14 healthy subjects during voluntary plantarflexion and dorsiflexion (active lengthening) with a similar background activity (BGA) level. The shape of this relationship was sigmoidal and was characterized by a plateau value, maximum slope and threshold. The plateau value was clearly lower during LEN contractions than during SHO contractions. Likewise, the maximum slope was lower during LEN contractions. However, the threshold did not differ significantly between the two tasks. Since the plateau value and the maximum slope clearly differed between LEN and SHO contractions despite the similarity of their BGA levels, the central nervous system appears to have a different activation strategy for each of these tasks. Namely, the relative balance between excitatory and inhibitory components of the corticospinal volleys, as well as the subliminal fringe of the corticospinal pathway, were reduced during LEN contractions compared with SHO contractions. These strategies may help to avoid reflexive contractions brought about by higher discharge of muscle spindles and enable fine motor actions in voluntary lengthening contractions.
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