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There is evidence in experimental animals that, in addition to receiving fusimotor drive, muscle spindles are subject to modulation by the sympathetic nervous system. We examined the validity of this idea in human subjects by recording from muscle spindles in the relaxed ankle and toe extensor muscles during a strong and sustained physiological activation of muscle sympathetic outflow. Unitary recordings were made from 20 primary and 17 secondary muscle spindle afferents via a tungsten microelectrode inserted percutaneously into the peroneal nerve in 10 awake, healthy subjects seated with the legs supported in the extended position. ECG, blood pressure, respiration and calf circumference were also recorded. The majority of the muscle spindles were spontaneously active at rest; a background discharge was induced in four silent spindles by vibrating the tendon. A sustained increase in muscle vasoconstrictor activity, an increase in calf volume and a fall in pulse pressure were produced by subjects performing a 30-40 s maximal inspiratory breath-hold. Despite this strong increase in muscle sympathetic outflow no significant changes occurred in the discharge of either primary or secondary muscle spindle afferents, measured as a change in mean frequency and variability over sequential 5 s epochs and compared with the preceding period of rest. Strong chemoreceptor-driven sympathetic bursts during sustained expiratory breath-holds also failed to modulate the firing of 14 spindle endings. We conclude that a sustained, physiological increase in muscle sympathetic activity causes no detectable change in muscle spindle firing, lending no support to the concept that the sympathetic nervous system can influence the sensitivity of human muscle spindles directly.

Original publication




Journal article


J Physiol

Publication Date





1005 - 1011


Adolescent, Adult, Apnea, Exhalation, Female, Humans, Inhalation, Leg, Male, Muscle Spindles, Muscle, Skeletal, Sympathetic Nervous System