Thirty-two patients with motor neurone disease were investigated using quantitative electrophysiological techniques. Estimates of the number of surviving motor units in the extensor digitorum brevis muscle and measurements of the electrophysiological parameters of these units are present along with the values for motor nerve conduction velocities. The results indicate that reinnervation in motor neurone disease is sufficient to compensate completely for the loss of up to 50% of the motor neurone pool supplying the muscle. The capacity for reinnervation is greater than we have found in a number of neuropathies but the efficiency of reinnervation decreases as the number of surviving motor units falls. Reinnervation appears to cease when 5% or less of the motor units remain viable. There is no electrophysiological evidence of a preferential loss of fast conducting axons, of pathological slowing of conduction nor of a dying-back process affecting the motor axon. Comparison of the electrophysiological parameters in progressive muscular atrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis shows no significant differences. The underlying pathophysiological mechanisms are discussed in terms of the results.
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