Reduced motor unit activation of muscle spindles and tendon organs in the immobilized cat hindlimb.
Six weeks of limb immobilization of a healthy muscle (cat tibialis posterior) at a short length resulted in a significant reduction of mean fiber area for all fiber types (I, 71% of control; IIa, 77% of control; IIb, 79% of control), whereas fiber type proportions were unchanged. For motor units, there was a reduction in peak tetanic force (type slow > fast fatigue resistant > fast fatigable); an increase in the twitch-to-tetanus ratio for fast fatigue-resistant and slow units; and no effect on the twitch force, twitch time course, or fatigability. The reduction in peak force was greater than expected because of fiber atrophy in slow units. Immobilization had a minimal effect on muscle spindle afferent (Ia and spindle group II) responses to a ramp-and-hold stretch of the passive muscle. Tendon organ (Ib) afferents had an increased responsiveness to stretch after immobilization but only when the muscle was stretched from a short resting length. However, immobilization reduced the modulation of muscle afferent discharge in response to tetanic contractions of single motor units. The decline in responsiveness of spindles was a result of the reduced tetanic force of motor units. In contrast, tendon organs in immobilized muscle were twice as likely to convey no information on the contraction of a single motor unit and were more likely to be unloaded, suggesting that immobilization caused the functional denervation of some muscle fibers. Thus the responses of muscle spindles and tendon organs in immobilized muscle reflected atrophic changes in extrafusal fibers but did not provide evidence for substantial disturbance of receptor function.