These experiments on the human forearm are based on the hypothesis that drift in the perceived position of a limb over time can be explained by receptor adaptation. Limb position sense was measured in 39 blindfolded subjects using a forearm-matching task. A property of muscle, its thixotropy, a contraction history-dependent passive stiffness, was exploited to place muscle receptors of elbow muscles in a defined state. After the arm had been held flexed and elbow flexors contracted, we observed time-dependent changes in the perceived position of the reference arm by an average of 2.8° in the direction of elbow flexion over 30 s (Experiment 1). The direction of the drift reversed after the arm had been extended and elbow extensors contracted, with a mean shift of 3.5° over 30 s in the direction of elbow extension (Experiment 2). The time-dependent changes could be abolished by conditioning elbow flexors and extensors in the reference arm at the test angle, although this led to large position errors during matching (±10°), depending on how the indicator arm had been conditioned (Experiments 3 and 4). When slack was introduced in the elbow muscles of both arms, by shortening muscles after the conditioning contraction, matching errors became small and there was no drift in position sense (Experiments 5 and 6). These experiments argue for a receptor-based mechanism for proprioceptive drift and suggest that to align the two forearms, the brain monitors the difference between the afferent signals from the two arms.
© 2014 The Authors. The Journal of Physiology © 2014 The Physiological Society.