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Stuck in gear: age-related loss of variable gearing in skeletal muscle.


Skeletal muscles power a broad diversity of animal movements, despite only being able to produce high forces over a limited range of velocities. Pennate muscles use a range of gear ratios, the ratio of muscle shortening velocity to fiber shortening velocity, to partially circumvent these force-velocity constraints. Muscles operate with a high gear ratio at low forces; fibers rotate to greater angles of pennation, enhancing velocity but compromising force. At higher forces, muscles operate with a lower gear ratio; fibers rotate little so limiting muscle shortening velocity, but helping to preserve force. This ability to shift gears is thought to be due to the interplay of contractile force and connective tissue constraints. In order to test this hypothesis, gear ratios were determined in the medial gastrocnemius muscles of both healthy young rats, and old rats where the interaction between contractile and connective tissue properties was assumed to be disrupted. Muscle fiber and aponeurosis stiffness increased with age (P<0.05) from 19.1±5.0 kPa and 188.5±24.2 MPa, respectively, in young rats to 39.1±4.2 kPa and 328.0±48.3 MPa in old rats, indicating a mechanical change in the interaction between contractile and connective tissues. Gear ratio decreased with increasing force in young (P<0.001) but not old (P=0.72) muscles, indicating that variable gearing is lost in old muscle. These findings support the hypothesis that variable gearing results from the interaction between contractile and connective tissues and suggest novel explanations for the decline in muscle performance with age.

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