When using muscles, the precision with which force is delivered is as important as the delivery of force itself. Force is regulated by both the number of recruited motoneurons and their spike frequency. While it is known that the recruitment is ordered to reduce variability in force, it remains unclear whether the motoneuron gain, i.e., the slope of the transformation between synaptic input and spiking output, is also modulated to reduce variability in force. To address this issue, we use turtle hindlimb scratching as a model for fine motor control, since this behavior involves precise limb movement to rub the location of somatic nuisance touch. We recorded intracellularly from motoneurons in a reduced preparation where the limbs were removed to increase mechanical stability and the motor nerve activity served as a surrogate for muscle force. We found that not only is the gain of motoneurons regulated on a subsecond timescale, it is also adjusted to minimize variability. The modulation is likely achieved via an expansive nonlinearity between spike rate and membrane potential with inhibition having a divisive influence. These findings reveal a versatile mechanism of modulating neuronal sensitivity and suggest that such modulation is fundamentally linked to optimization.
Journal of Neuroscience : the Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 2015, Vol 35, Issue 8, p. 3711-23