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Prolonged Mental Exertion Does Not Alter Neuromuscular Function of the Knee Extensors

Pageaux, Benjamin1,2; Marcora, Samuele M.1; Lepers, Romuald2

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: December 2013 - Volume 45 - Issue 12 - p 2254–2264
doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31829b504a
Basic Sciences

Purpose The aim of this study was to test the hypotheses that prolonged mental exertion (i) reduces maximal muscle activation and (ii) increases the extent of central fatigue induced by subsequent endurance exercise.

Methods The neuromuscular function of the knee extensor muscles was assessed in 10 male subjects in two different conditions: (i) before and after prolonged mental exertion leading to mental fatigue and (ii) before and after an easy cognitive task (control). Both cognitive tasks lasted 90 min and were followed by submaximal isometric knee extensor exercise until exhaustion (endurance task), and a third assessment of neuromuscular function.

Results Time to exhaustion was 13% ± 4% shorter in the mental fatigue condition (230 ± 22 s) compared with the control condition (266 ± 26 s) (P < 0.01). Prolonged mental exertion did not have any significant effect on maximal voluntary contraction torque, voluntary activation level, and peripheral parameters of neuromuscular function. A similar significant decrease in maximal voluntary contraction torque (mental fatigue condition: −26.7% ± 5.7%; control condition: −27.6% ± 3.3%, P < 0.001), voluntary activation level (mental fatigue: − 10.6% ± 4.3%; control condition: − 11.2% ± 5.2%, P < 0.05), and peripheral parameters of neuromuscular function occurred in both conditions after the endurance task. However, mentally fatigued subjects rated perceived exertion significantly higher during the endurance task compared with the control condition (P < 0.05).

Conclusions These findings provide the first experimental evidence that prolonged mental exertion (i) does not reduce maximal muscle activation and (ii) does not increase the extent of central fatigue induced by subsequent endurance exercise. The negative effect of mental fatigue on endurance performance seems to be mediated by the higher perception of effort rather than impaired neuromuscular function.

1Endurance Research Group, School of Sport & Exercise Sciences, University of Kent at Medway, Chatham Maritime, Kent, UNITED KINGDOM; and 2Laboratoire INSERM U1093, Université de Bourgogne, Faculté des Sciences du Sports–UFR STAPS, Dijon, FRANCE

Address for correspondence: Romuald Lepers, Ph.D., Laboratoire INSERM U1093, Faculté des Sciences du Sports, Université de Bourgogne, BP 27877, 21078 Dijon Cedex, France; E-mail:

Submitted for publication February 2013.

Accepted for publication May 2013.

© 2013 American College of Sports Medicine