Muscle coordination is habitual rather than optimal

J Neurosci. 2012 May 23;32(21):7384-91. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5792-11.2012.


When sharing load among multiple muscles, humans appear to select an optimal pattern of activation that minimizes costs such as the effort or variability of movement. How the nervous system achieves this behavior, however, is unknown. Here we show that contrary to predictions from optimal control theory, habitual muscle activation patterns are surprisingly robust to changes in limb biomechanics. We first developed a method to simulate joint forces in real time from electromyographic recordings of the wrist muscles. When the model was altered to simulate the effects of paralyzing a muscle, the subjects simply increased the recruitment of all muscles to accomplish the task, rather than recruiting only the useful muscles. When the model was altered to make the force output of one muscle unusually noisy, the subjects again persisted in recruiting all muscles rather than eliminating the noisy one. Such habitual coordination patterns were also unaffected by real modifications of biomechanics produced by selectively damaging a muscle without affecting sensory feedback. Subjects naturally use different patterns of muscle contraction to produce the same forces in different pronation-supination postures, but when the simulation was based on a posture different from the actual posture, the recruitment patterns tended to agree with the actual rather than the simulated posture. The results appear inconsistent with computation of motor programs by an optimal controller in the brain. Rather, the brain may learn and recall command programs that result in muscle coordination patterns generated by lower sensorimotor circuitry that are functionally "good-enough."

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Adult
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Computer Simulation
  • Electric Stimulation / methods
  • Electromyography / methods
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Muscle Contraction / physiology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Paralysis / physiopathology
  • Peripheral Nerves / physiology
  • Posture / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Recruitment, Neurophysiological / physiology*
  • Wrist / physiology