Humans are able to perform very sophisticated reaching movements in a myriad of contexts based on flexible control strategies influenced by the task goal and environmental constraints such as obstacles. However, it remains unknown whether these control strategies can be adjusted online. The objective of this study was to determine whether the factors that determine control strategies during planning also modify the execution of an ongoing movement following sudden changes in task demand. More precisely, we investigated whether, and at which latency, feedback responses to perturbation loads followed the change in the structure of the goal target or environment. We changed the target width (square or rectangle) to alter the task redundancy, or the presence of obstacles to induce different constraints on the reach path, and assessed based on surface electromyography (EMG) recordings when the change in visual display altered the feedback response to mechanical perturbations. Task-related EMG responses were detected within 150 ms of a change in target shape. Considering visuomotor delays of ∼ 100 ms, these results suggest that it takes 50 ms to change control policy within a trial. An additional 30-ms delay was observed when the change in context involved sudden appearance or disappearance of obstacles. Overall, our results demonstrate that the control policy within a reaching movement is not static: contextual factors that influence movement planning also influence movement execution at surprisingly short latencies. Moreover, the additional 30 ms associated with obstacles suggests that these two types of changes may be mediated via distinct processes.NEW & NOTEWORTHY The present work demonstrates that the control strategies used to perform reaching movements are adjusted online when the structure of the target or the presence of obstacles are altered during movements. Thus, the properties of goal-directed reaching control are not simply selected during the planning stage of a movement prior to execution. Rather, they are dynamically and rapidly adjusted online, within ∼150 ms, according to changes in environment.
Keywords: obstacle; online feedback control strategy; perturbation; reaching movement; target switching.