24 March 2016
World champion master athletes in their ninth decade of life had a greater number of surviving motor units, reduced collateral reinnervation, better neuromuscular transmission stability, and a greater amount of excitable muscle mass compared with age-matched controls. The presumed better maintenance of motor units occurs at a time point when motor unit loss is greatest and the loss of muscle mass becomes functionally relevant, potentially maintaining function and attenuating the deleterious effects of sarcopenia .
Our group has shown a greater number of functioning motor units (MU) in a cohort of highly active older (∼65 yr) masters runners relative to age-matched controls. Because of the precipitous loss in the number of functioning MUs in the eighth and ninth decades of life it is unknown whether older world class octogenarian masters athletes (MA) would also have greater numbers of functioning MUs compared with age-matched controls. We measured MU numbers and neuromuscular transmission stability in the tibialis anterior of world champion MAs (∼80 yr) and compared the values with healthy age-matched controls (∼80 yr). Decomposition-enhanced spike-triggered averaging was used to collect surface and intramuscular electromyography signals during dorsiflexion at ∼25% of maximum voluntary isometric contraction. Near fiber (NF) MU potential analysis was used to assess neuromuscular transmission stability. For the MAs compared with age-matched controls, the amount of excitable muscle mass (compound muscle action potential) was 14% greater ( P < 0.05), there was a trend ( P = 0.07) toward a 27% smaller surface-detected MU potential representative of less collateral reinnervation, and 28% more functioning MUs ( P < 0.05). Additionally, the MAs had greater MU neuromuscular stability than the controls, as indicated by lower NF jitter and jiggle values ( P < 0.05). These results demonstrate that high-performing octogenarians better maintain neuromuscular stability of the MU and mitigate the loss of MUs associated with aging well into the later decades of life during which time the loss of muscle mass and strength becomes functionally relevant. Future studies may identify the concomitant roles genetics and exercise play in neuroprotection.