Muscle patterns underlying voluntary modulation of co-contraction

Manipulative actions involving unstable interactions with the environment require controlling mechanical impedance through muscle co-contraction. While much research has focused on how the central nervous system (CNS) selects the muscle patterns underlying a desired movement or end-point force, the coordination strategies used to achieve a desired end-point impedance have received considerably less attention. We recorded isometric forces at the hand and electromyographic (EMG) signals in subjects performing a reaching task with an external disturbance. In a virtual environment, subjects displaced a cursor by applying isometric forces and were instructed to reach targets in 20 spatial locations. The motion of the cursor was then perturbed by disturbances whose effects could be attenuated by increasing co-contraction. All subjects could voluntarily modulate co-contraction when disturbances of different magnitudes were applied. For most muscles, activation was modulated by target direction according to a cosine tuning function with an offset and an amplitude increasing with disturbance magnitude. Co-contraction was characterized by projecting the muscle activation vector onto the null space of the EMG-to-force mapping. Even in the baseline the magnitude of the null space projection was larger than the minimum magnitude required for non-negative muscle activations. Moreover, the increase in co-contraction was not obtained by scaling the baseline null space projection, scaling the difference between the null space projections in any block and the projection of the non-negative minimum-norm muscle vector, or scaling the difference between the null space projections in the perturbed blocks and the baseline null space projection. However, the null space projections in the perturbed blocks were obtained by linear combination of the baseline null space projection and the muscle activation used to increase co-contraction without generating any force. The failure of scaling rules in explaining voluntary modulation of arm co-contraction suggests that muscle pattern generation may be constrained by muscle synergies.