Motor neuron

Motor neuron
Neuron: Motor neuron
Motor neuron - Micrograph of the hypoglossal nucleus showing motor neurons with their characteristic coarse Nissl substance ("tigroid" cytoplasm). H&E-LFB stain.
Micrograph of the hypoglossal nucleus showing motor neurons with their characteristic coarse Nissl substance ("tigroid" cytoplasm). H&E-LFB stain.
Location Ventral horn of the spinal cord, some cranial nerve nuclei
Function Excitatory projection (to NMJ)
Neurotransmitter UMN to LMN: glutamate; LMN to NMJ: ACh
Morphology Projection neuron
Presynaptic connections M1 via the Corticospinal tract
Postsynaptic connections Muscle fibers and other neurons
NeuroLex ID nifext_103
v · d · e

In vertebrates, the term motor neuron (or motoneuron) classically applies to neurons located in the central nervous system (or CNS) that project their axons outside the CNS and directly or indirectly control muscles. The motor neuron is often associated with efferent neuron, primary neuron, or alpha motor neurons.


Anatomy and physiology

Branch of NS Position Neurotransmitter
Somatic n/a Acetylcholine
Parasympathetic Preganglionic Acetylcholine
Parasympathetic Ganglionic Acetylcholine
Sympathetic Preganglionic Acetylcholine
Sympathetic Ganglionic Norepinephrine*
*Except fibers to sweat glands and certain blood vessels
Motoneuron neurotransmitters

According to their targets, motor neurons are classified into three broad categories:

Somatic motor neurons, which directly innervate skeletal muscles, involved in locomotion (such as the muscles of the limbs, abdominal, and intercostal muscles).

Special visceral motor neurons, also called branchial motor neurons, which directly innervate branchial muscles (that motorize the gills in fish and the face and neck in land vertebrates).

General visceral motor neurons (visceral motor neurons for short) which indirectly innervate cardiac muscle and smooth muscles of the viscera ( the muscles of the arteries): they synapse onto neurons located in ganglia of the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic), located in the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which themselves directly innervate visceral muscles (and also some gland cells).

In other words:

  • the motor command of skeletal and branchial muscles is monosynaptic (involving only one motor neuron, respectively, somatic and branchial, which synapses onto the muscle).
  • the command of visceral muscles is disynaptic (involving two neurons: the general visceral motor neuron located in the CNS, which synapses onto a ganglionic neuron, located in the PNS, which synapses onto the muscle).

It could be argued that, in the command of visceral muscles, the ganglionic neuron, parasympathetic or sympathetic, is the real motor neuron, being the one that directly innervates the muscle (whereas the general visceral motor neuron is, strictly speaking, a preganglionic neuron). But, for historical reasons, the term motor neuron is reserved for the CNS neuron.

All vertebrate motor neurons are cholinergic, that is, they release the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Parasympathetic ganglionic neurons are also cholinergic, whereas most sympathetic ganglionic neurons are noradrenergic, that is, they release the neurotransmitter noradrenaline. (see Table)


The interface between a motor neuron and muscle fiber is a specialized synapse called the neuromuscular junction. Upon adequate stimulation, the motor neuron releases a flood of neurotransmitters that bind to postsynaptic receptors and triggers a response in the muscle fiber.

  • In invertebrates, depending on the neurotransmitter released and the type of receptor it binds, the response in the muscle fiber could be either excitatory or inhibitory.
  • For vertebrates, however, the response of a muscle fiber to a neurotransmitter can only be excitatory, in other words, contractile. Muscle relaxation and inhibition of muscle contraction in vertebrates is obtained only by inhibition of the motor neuron itself. Although muscle innervation may eventually play a role in the maturation of motor activity. This is why muscle relaxants work by acting on the motoneurons that innervate muscles (by decreasing their electrophysiological activity) or on cholinergic neuromuscular junctions, rather than on the muscles themselves.

Somatic motor neurons

Somatic motoneurons are further subdivided into two types: alpha efferent neurons and gamma efferent neurons. (Both types are called efferent to indicate the flow of information from the central nervous system (CNS) to the periphery.)

  • Alpha motoneurons innervate extrafusal muscle fibers (typically referred to simply as muscle fibers) located throughout the muscle. Their cell bodies are in the ventral horn of the spinal cord and they are sometimes called ventral horn cells.
  • Gamma motoneurons innervate intrafusal muscle fibers found within the muscle spindle.

In addition to voluntary skeletal muscle contraction, alpha motoneurons also contribute to muscle tone, the continuous force generated by noncontracting muscle to oppose stretching. When a muscle is stretched, sensory neurons within the muscle spindle detect the degree of stretch and send a signal to the CNS. The CNS activates alpha motoneurons in the spinal cord, which cause extrafusal muscle fibers to contract and thereby resist further stretching. This process is also called the stretch reflex.

Gamma motoneurons regulate the sensitivity of the spindle to muscle stretching. With activation of gamma neurons, intrafusal muscle fibers contract so that only a small stretch is required to activate spindle sensory neurons and the stretch reflex.

Motor units

A single motor neuron may synapse with one or more muscle fibers. The motor neuron and all of the muscle fibers to which it connects is a motor unit.

See also


  • Sherwood, L. (2001). Human Physiology: From Cells to Systems (4th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks-Cole. ISBN 0534372546. 
  • Marieb, E. N.; Mallatt, J. (1997). Human Anatomy (2nd ed.). Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings. ISBN 0805340688. 

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • motor neuron — n a neuron that passes from the central nervous system or a ganglion toward or to a muscle and conducts an impulse that causes movement called also motoneuron compare INTERNEURON, SENSORY NEURON * * * motoneuron …   Medical dictionary

  • motor neuron — n. a type of neuron that carries nerve impulses that activate a muscle, gland, etc …   English World dictionary

  • motor neuron disease — ˌmotor ˈneuron disease f57 [motor neuron disease] (also ˌmotoˈneuron disease) noun uncountable a disease in which the nerves and muscles become gradually weaker until the person dies …   Useful english dictionary

  • motor neuron disease — motor neuron dis,ease noun uncount a serious illness in which the part of a person s NERVOUS SYSTEM that controls movement is gradually destroyed, causing them to lose control over their muscles …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • motor neuron disease — any disease of a motor neuron, including spinal muscular atrophy, progressive bulbar paralysis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and lateral sclerosis …   Medical dictionary

  • motor neuron — noun a neuron conducting impulses outwards from the brain or spinal cord (Freq. 1) • Syn: ↑efferent neuron, ↑motor nerve fiber, ↑motoneuron • Hypernyms: ↑nerve cell, ↑neuron • …   Useful english dictionary

  • motor neuron — A neuron that transmits excitation directly to an effector; motor nerve …   Dictionary of invertebrate zoology

  • motor neuron — noun Date: 1898 a neuron that passes from the central nervous system or a ganglion toward a muscle and conducts an impulse that causes movement called also motoneuron …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • motor neuron — noun A neuron located in the central nervous system that projects its axon outside the CNS and directly or indirectly control muscles. Syn: motoneuron …   Wiktionary

  • motor neuron disease — (= amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) Degenerative disease of unknown cause that affects predominantly motor neurons of spinal cord, cranial nerve nuclei and motor cortex. There is speculation that deficiency in ciliary neurotrophic factor may be… …   Dictionary of molecular biology

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