Increased diaphragm motor unit discharge frequencies during quiet breathing in people with chronic tetraplegia

D. A. T. Nguyen, R. H. C. Lewis, C. L. Boswell-Ruys, A. L. Hudson, S. C. Gandevia, Jane E. Butler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


People with tetraplegia have reduced inspiratory muscle strength, ∼40% of able-bodied individuals. Paralysed or partially paralysed respiratory muscles as a result of tetraplegia compromise lung function, increase the incidence of respiratory infections and can cause dyspnoea. We hypothesised that reduced inspiratory muscle strength in tetraplegia may increase neural drive to the inspiratory muscles to maintain ventilation. We recorded the discharge properties of single motor units from the diaphragm in participants with chronic tetraplegia (8 males, 42–78 years, C3–C6 injury, AIS A–C) and able-bodied control participants (6 males matched for age and body mass index). In each group, 117 and 166 single motor units, respectively, were discriminated from recordings in the costal diaphragm using a monopolar electrode. A linear mixed-effects model analysis showed higher peak discharge frequencies of motor units during quiet breathing in tetraplegia (17.8 ± 4.9 Hz; mean ± SD) compared with controls (12.4 ± 2.2 Hz) (P < 0.001). There were no differences in tidal volume, inspiratory time or mean air flow between groups. Motor unit potentials in tetraplegia, compared with controls, were larger in amplitude (1.1 ± 0.7 mV and 0.5 ± 0.3 mV, respectively, P = 0.007) and area (1.83 ± 1.49 µV ms and 0.69 ± 0.52 µV ms, respectively, P = 0.003). The findings indicate that diaphragm motor unit remodelling is likely to have occurred in people with chronic tetraplegia and that there is an increase in diaphragm motor unit discharge rates during quiet breathing. These neural changes ensure that ventilation is maintained in people with chronic tetraplegia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2243-2256
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Physiology
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • diaphragm
  • electromyography
  • tetraplegia


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