Physiological mechanisms for stabilizing the limb when acting against physical constraints

Annu Int Conf IEEE Eng Med Biol Soc. 2016 Aug;2016:13-16. doi: 10.1109/EMBC.2016.7590628.


Smooth physical interaction with our environment, such as when working with tools, requires adaptability to unpredictable perturbations that can be achieved through impedance control of multi-joint limbs. Modulation of arm stiffness can be achieved either increasing co-contraction of antagonistic muscles or by increasing the gain of spinal reflex loops. According to the "automatic gain scaling" principle, the spinal reflex gain, as measured via the H-reflex, scales with muscle activation. A previous experiment from our labs suggested, however, that reflex gains might instead be scaled to the force exerted by the limb, perhaps as a means to counteract destabilizing external forces. The goal of our experiment was to test whether force output, rather than the muscular activity per se, could be the critical factor determining reflex gain. Five subjects generated different levels of force at the wrist with or without assistance to dissociate applied force from agonist muscular activity. We recorded contact force, EMG and H-reflex response from a wrist flexor. We did not find a strict relationship between reflex gain and contact force but nor did we observe consistent modulation of reflex gain simply as a function of agonist muscle activity. These results are discussed in relation to the stability of the task constraints.

MeSH terms

  • Electromyography
  • Extremities
  • Female
  • H-Reflex / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology
  • Nontherapeutic Human Experimentation
  • Wrist / physiology*
  • Wrist Joint