, Volume 164, Issue 2, pp 225-241
Date: 27 Apr 2005

Basic elements of arm postural control analyzed by unloading

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To address the question of how arm posture is controlled, we analyzed shoulder–elbow unloading responses in the horizontal plane for different directions of the initial load. The initial load, produced by a double-joint manipulandum, was suddenly diminished to 1of 12 randomly presented levels (60 to −10% of the initial load; in 6 out of 12 cases the final load direction varied by ±20°). Subjects were instructed “not to intervene” in response to unloading. Neither the unloading onset nor the final load level was predictable and we assumed that the responses to rapid unloading were involuntary. Unloading elicited a smooth hand movement characterized by a bell-shaped velocity profile. The changes in hand position, joint angles, and joint torques generally increased with greater amounts of unloading. For each direction of the initial load, tonic electromyographic activity of the shoulder and elbow muscles also changed, depending on the amount of unloading. The shoulder and elbow joint torques before and after unloading were a function of the difference between the actual configuration of the arm and its referent configuration (R) described by the angles at which each joint torque was zero. The R configuration changed depending on the direction of the initial load. Our electromyographic data imply that these changes result from a central modification of muscle activation thresholds. The nervous system may thus control the R configuration in a task-specific way by leaving it unchanged to generate involuntary responses to unloading or modifying it to accommodate a new load direction at the same initial position. It is concluded that the R configuration is a major variable in both intentional and involuntary control of posture.