Biomech Model Mechanobiol. 2022 Dec 27. doi: 10.1007/s10237-022-01666-2. Online ahead of print.
Functional heterogeneity is a skeletal muscle’s ability to generate diverse force vectors through localised motor unit (MU) recruitment. Existing 3D macroscopic continuum-mechanical finite element (FE) muscle models neglect MU anatomy and recruit muscle volume simultaneously, making them unsuitable for studying functional heterogeneity. Here, we develop a method to incorporate MU anatomy and information in 3D models. Virtual fibres in the muscle are grouped into MUs via a novel “virtual innervation” technique, which can control the units’ size, shape, position, and overlap. The discrete MU anatomy is then mapped to the FE mesh via statistical averaging, resulting in a volumetric MU distribution. Mesh dependency is investigated using a 2D idealised model and revealed that the amount of MU overlap is inversely proportional to mesh dependency. Simultaneous recruitment of a MU’s volume implies that action potentials (AP) propagate instantaneously. A 3D idealised model is used to verify this assumption, revealing that neglecting AP propagation results in a slightly less-steady force, advanced in time by approximately 20 ms, at the tendons. Lastly, the method is applied to a 3D, anatomically realistic model of the masticatory system to demonstrate the functional heterogeneity of masseter muscles in producing bite force. We found that the MU anatomy significantly affected bite force direction compared to bite force magnitude. MU position was much more efficacious in bringing about bite force changes than MU overlap. These results highlight the relevance of MU anatomy to muscle function and joint force, particularly for muscles with complex neuromuscular architecture.