Background Surface electromyography (EMG) parameters such as root-mean-square value (RMS) are commonly used to assess the muscle activation level that is imposed by the central nervous system (CNS). However, RMS is influenced not only by motor control aspects, but also by peripheral properties of the muscle and recording setup. To assess motor control separately, the number of motor unit action potentials (MUAPs) per second, or MUAP Rate (MR) is a potentially useful measure. MR is the sum of the firing rates of the contributing MUs and as such reflects the two parameters that the CNS uses for motor control: number of MUs and firing rate. MR can be estimated from multi-channel surface EMG recordings. The objective of this study was to explore the behaviour of estimated MR (eMR) in relation to number of active MUs and firing rate. Furthermore, the influence of parameters related to peripheral muscle properties and recording setup (number of fibers per MU, fiber diameter, thickness of the subcutaneous layer, signal-to-noise-ratio) on eMR was compared with their influence on RMS. Methods Physiological parameters were varied in a simulation model that generated multi-channel EMG signals. The behaviour of eMR in simulated conditions was compared with its behaviour in experimental conditions. Experimental data was obtained from the upper trapezius muscle during a shoulder elevation task (20–100 N). Results The simulations showed strong, monotonously increasing relations between eMR and number of active MUs and firing rate (r2 > 0.95). Because of unrecognized superimpositions of MUAPs, eMR was substantially lower than the actual MUAP Rate (aMR). The percentage of detected MUAPs decreased with aMR, but the relation between eMR and aMR was rather stable in all simulated conditions. In contrast to RMS, eMR was not affected by number of fibers per MU, fiber diameter and thickness of the subcutaneous layer. Experimental data showed a strong relation between eMR and force (individual second order polynomial regression: 0.96 < r2 < 0.99). Conclusion Although the actual number of MUAPs in the signal cannot be accurately extracted with the present method, the stability of the relation between eMR and aMR and its independence of muscle properties make eMR a suitable parameter to assess the input from the CNS to the muscle at low contraction levels non-invasively.
- BSS-Biomechatronics and rehabilitation technology