J Appl Physiol. 2008 Feb;104(2):542-50. Epub 2007 Nov 21.
A comparison of central aspects of fatigue in submaximal and maximal voluntary contractions.

Taylor JL, Gandevia SC.
Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute, Barker St., Randwick, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. jl.taylor@unsw.edu.au
Magnetic and electrical stimulation at different levels of the neuraxis show that supraspinal and spinal factors limit force production in maximal isometric efforts ("central fatigue"). In sustained maximal contractions, motoneurons become less responsive to synaptic input and descending drive becomes suboptimal. Exercise-induced activity in group III and IV muscle afferents acts supraspinally to limit motor cortical output but does not alter motor cortical responses to transcranial magnetic stimulation. "Central" and "peripheral" fatigue develop more slowly during submaximal exercise. In sustained submaximal contractions, central fatigue occurs in brief maximal efforts even with a weak ongoing contraction (<15% maximum). The presence of central fatigue when much of the available motor pathway is not engaged suggests that afferent inputs contribute to reduce voluntary activation. Small-diameter muscle afferents are likely to be activated by local activity even in sustained weak contractions. During such contractions, it is difficult to measure central fatigue, which is best demonstrated in maximal efforts. To show central fatigue in submaximal contractions, changes in motor unit firing and force output need to be characterized simultaneously. Increasing central drive recruits new motor units, but the way this occurs is likely to depend on properties of the motoneurons and the inputs they receive in the task. It is unclear whether such factors impair force production for a set level of descending drive and thus represent central fatigue. The best indication that central fatigue is important during submaximal tasks is the disproportionate increase in subjects' perceived effort when maintaining a low target force.