Limits to the control of the human thumb and fingers in flexion and extension

J Neurophysiol. 2010 Jan;103(1):278-89. doi: 10.1152/jn.00797.2009. Epub 2009 Nov 4.


In humans, hand performance has evolved from a crude multidigit grasp to skilled individuated finger movements. However, control of the fingers is not completely independent. Although musculotendinous factors can limit independent movements, constraints in supraspinal control are more important. Most previous studies examined either flexion or extension of the digits. We studied differences in voluntary force production by the five digits, in both flexion and extension tasks. Eleven healthy subjects were instructed either to maximally flex or extend their digits, in all single- and multidigit combinations. They received visual feedback of total force produced by "instructed" digits and had to ignore "noninstructed" digits. Despite attempts to maximally flex or extend instructed digits, subjects rarely generated their "maximal" force, resulting in a "force deficit," and produced forces with noninstructed digits ("enslavement"). Subjects performed differently in flexion and extension tasks. Enslavement was greater in extension than in flexion tasks (P = 0.019), whereas the force deficit in multidigit tasks was smaller in extension (P = 0.035). The difference between flexion and extension in the relationships between the enslavement and force deficit suggests a difference in balance of spillover of neural drive to agonists acting on neighboring digits and focal neural drive to antagonist muscles. An increase in drive to antagonists would lead to more individualized movements. The pattern of force production matches the daily use of the digits. These results reveal a neural control system that preferentially lifts fingers together by extension but allows an individual digit to flex so that the finger pads can explore and grasp.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Feedback, Sensory
  • Female
  • Fingers*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motor Activity*
  • Psychomotor Performance*
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Thumb*
  • Torsion, Mechanical
  • Visual Perception