Physiological modules for generating discrete and rhythmic movements: component analysis of EMG signals

Front Comput Neurosci. 2015 Jan 9;8:169. doi: 10.3389/fncom.2014.00169. eCollection 2014.


A central question in Neuroscience is that of how the nervous system generates the spatiotemporal commands needed to realize complex gestures, such as handwriting. A key postulate is that the central nervous system (CNS) builds up complex movements from a set of simpler motor primitives or control modules. In this study we examined the control modules underlying the generation of muscle activations when performing different types of movement: discrete, point-to-point movements in eight different directions and continuous figure-eight movements in both the normal, upright orientation and rotated 90°. To test for the effects of biomechanical constraints, movements were performed in the frontal-parallel or sagittal planes, corresponding to two different nominal flexion/abduction postures of the shoulder. In all cases we measured limb kinematics and surface electromyographic activity (EMG) signals for seven different muscles acting around the shoulder. We first performed principal component analysis (PCA) of the EMG signals on a movement-by-movement basis. We found a surprisingly consistent pattern of muscle groupings across movement types and movement planes, although we could detect systematic differences between the PCs derived from movements performed in each shoulder posture and between the principal components associated with the different orientations of the figure. Unexpectedly we found no systematic differences between the figure eights and the point-to-point movements. The first three principal components could be associated with a general co-contraction of all seven muscles plus two patterns of reciprocal activation. From these results, we surmise that both "discrete-rhythmic movements" such as the figure eight, and discrete point-to-point movement may be constructed from three different fundamental modules, one regulating the impedance of the limb over the time span of the movement and two others operating to generate movement, one aligned with the vertical and the other aligned with the horizontal.

Keywords: figure-eight; muscular synergy; principal component analysis; rhythmic movement; upper limb; varimax factor analysis.