Apparent and Actual Trajectory Control Depend on the Behavioral Context in Upper Limb Motor Tasks

J Neurosci. 2015 Sep 9;35(36):12465-76. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0902-15.2015.


A central problem in motor neuroscience is to understand how we select, plan, and control motor actions. An influential idea is that the motor system computes and implements a desired limb trajectory, an intermediary control process between the behavioral goal (reach a spatial goal) and motor commands to move the limb. The most compelling evidence for trajectory control is that corrective responses are directed back toward the unperturbed trajectory when the limb is disturbed during movement. However, the idea of trajectory control conflicts with optimal control theories that emphasize goal-directed motor corrections. Here we show that corrective responses in human subjects can deviate back toward the unperturbed trajectory, but these reversals were only present when there were explicit limits on movement time. Our second experiment asked whether trajectory control could be generated if the trajectory was made an explicit goal of the task. Participants countered unexpected loads while reaching to a static goal, tracking a moving target, or maintaining their hand within a visually constrained path to a static goal. Corrective responses were directed back toward the constrained path or to intercept the moving target. However, corrections back to the unperturbed path disappeared when reaching to the static target. Long-latency muscle responses paralleled changes in the behavioral goal in both sets of experiments, but goal-directed responses were delayed by 15-25 ms when tracking the moving goal. Our results show the motor system can behave like a trajectory controller but only if a "desired trajectory" is the goal of the task. Significance statement: One of the most influential ideas in motor control is that the motor system computes a "desired trajectory" when reaching to a spatial goal. Here we revisit the experimental paradigm from seminal papers supporting trajectory control to illustrate that corrective responses appear to return to the original trajectory of the limb, but only if there is an imposed timing constraint. We then provide direct evidence that the human motor system can behave like a trajectory controller, and return the limb to its original trajectory when a specified trajectory is the goal of the task. Our results show that the motor system is capable of a spectrum of corrective responses that depend on the behavioral goal of the motor task.

Keywords: feedback control; goal-directed corrections; mechanical perturbations; muscle stretch responses; reaching; task constraints.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arm / innervation
  • Arm / physiology*
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Feedback, Physiological
  • Female
  • Goals
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Movement*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / innervation
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology
  • Psychomotor Performance*