Muscle spindle proprioceptive receptors play a primary role in encoding the effects of external mechanical perturbations to the body. During externally-imposed stretches of passive, i.e. electrically-quiescent, muscles, the instantaneous firing rates (IFRs) of muscle spindles are associated with characteristics of stretch such as length and velocity. However, even in passive muscle, there are history-dependent transients of muscle spindle firing that are not uniquely related to muscle length and velocity, nor reproduced by current muscle spindle models. These include acceleration-dependent initial bursts, increased dynamic response to stretch velocity if a muscle has been isometric, and rate relaxation, i.e., a decrease in tonic IFR when a muscle is held at a constant length after being stretched. We collected muscle spindle spike trains across a variety of muscle stretch kinematic conditions, including systematic changes in peak length, velocity, and acceleration. We demonstrate that muscle spindle primary afferents in passive muscle fire in direct relationship to muscle force-related variables, rather than length-related variables. Linear combinations of whole muscle-tendon force and the first time derivative of force (dF/dt) predict the entire time course of transient IFRs in muscle spindle Ia afferents during stretch (i.e., lengthening) of passive muscle, including the initial burst, the dynamic response to lengthening, and rate relaxation following lengthening. Similar to acceleration scaling found previously in postural responses to perturbations, initial burst amplitude scaled equally well to initial stretch acceleration or dF/dt, though later transients were only described by dF/dt. The transient increase in dF/dt at the onset of lengthening reflects muscle short-range stiffness due to cross-bridge dynamics. Our work demonstrates a critical role of muscle cross-bridge dynamics in history-dependent muscle spindle IFRs in passive muscle lengthening conditions relevant to the detection and sensorimotor response to mechanical perturbations to the body, and to previously-described history-dependence in perception of limb position
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