Contractile properties of human motor units provide information on the force capacity and fatigability of muscles. The spike-triggered averaging technique (STA) is a conventional method used to estimate the twitch waveform of single motor units in vivo by averaging the joint force signal. Several limitations of this technique have been previously discussed in an empirical way, using simulated and experimental data. In this study, we provide a theoretical analysis of this technique in the frequency domain and describe its intrinsic limitations. By analyzing the analytical expression of STA, first we show that a certain degree of correlation between the motor unit activities prevents an accurate estimation of the twitch force, even from relatively long recordings. Second, we show that the quality of the twitch estimates by STA is highly related to the relative variability of the inter-spike intervals of motor unit action potentials. Interestingly, if this variability is extremely high, correct estimates could be obtained even for high discharge rates. However, for physiological inter-spike interval variability and discharge rate, the technique performs with relatively low estimation accuracy and high estimation variance. Finally, we show that the selection of the triggers that are most distant from the previous and next, which is often suggested, is not an effective way for improving STA estimates and in some cases can even be detrimental. These results show the intrinsic limitations of the STA technique and provide a theoretical framework for the design of new methods for the measurement of motor unit force twitch.
Negro, F., Yavuz, Ş. U., & Farina, D. (2014). Limitations of the spike-triggered averaging for estimating motor unit twitch force: A theoretical analysis. PLoS ONE, 9(3), [e92390]. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0101614