Maintaining arm control during self-triggered and unpredictable unloading perturbations

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European Journal of Neuroscience





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We often perform actions where we must break through some resistive force, but want to remain in control during this unpredictable transition; for example, when an object we are pushing on transitions from static to dynamic friction and begins to move. We designed a laboratory task to replicate this situation in which participants actively pushed against a robotic manipulandum until they exceeded an unpredictable threshold, at which point the manipulandum moved freely. Human participants were instructed to either stop the movement of the handle following this unloading perturbation, or to continue pushing. We found that participants were able to modulate their reflexes in response to this unpredictable and self-triggered unloading perturbation according to the instruction they were following, and that this reflex modulation could not be explained by pre-perturbation muscle state. However, in a second task, where participants reactively produced force during the pre-unloading phase in response to the robotic manipulandum to maintain a set hand position, they were unable to modulate their reflexes in the same task-dependent way. This occurred even though the forces they produced were matched to the first task and they had more time to prepare for the unloading event. We suggest this disparity occurs because of different neural circuits involved in posture and movement, meaning that participants in the first task did not require additional time to switch from postural to movement control.