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Neuroscience. 2006 May 12;139(2):749-65. Epub 2006 Jan 31.

How to extend the elbow with a weak or paralyzed triceps: control of arm kinematics for aiming in C6-C7 quadriplegic patients.

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Neurophysique et physiologie, CNRS UMR 8119, 45 rue des Saints-Pères, 75270 Paris Cedex 06, France.


This study aims to investigate how quadriplegic patients with a C6-C7 spinal lesion coordinate their upper limb to extend the elbow despite the paralysis or weakness of the triceps brachii, and what is the effect of a surgical musculotendinous transfer. For this purpose, aiming movements in a wide workspace were recorded in seven healthy subjects and in patients with incomplete (five cases) or complete (eight cases) triceps paralysis and after musculotendinous transfer (eight cases). We used four electromagnetic field sensors to quantify hand trajectory and to compute the angles describing the rotations at the scapula, glenohumeral joint, elbow and wrist (10 degrees of freedom). Extent and smoothness of the hand trajectories and hand velocity profiles were surprisingly similar between healthy subjects and quadriplegic patients. The reduction of elbow extension observed in patients was compensated by rotations distributed across several degrees of freedom including the scapula. Principal components analysis showed that the joint rotations could be summarized by an additive combination of two synergies, respectively orientating and stretching out the limb, which explained similar amounts of variance in healthy subjects and in patients. The participations of degrees of freedom in the synergies were roughly similar in the different groups of subjects, the main difference concerning scapular medial-lateral rotation, which seems to be critical in patients with a complete triceps paralysis. This demonstrates that elbow extension in quadriplegic patients is due to anticipated mechanical interaction coupling between upper limb segments. We propose that the persisting (incomplete paralysis) or restored (musculotendinous transfer) elbow extensor strength may act by stabilizing the elbow. This counterintuitive preservation of limb kinematics for horizontal aiming movements in quadriplegic patients despite the drastic changes in muscle action provoked by paralysis and/or by surgery strongly suggests that the motor system does not primarily control forces but the morphological aspects of movement, via joint rotation synergies.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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