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J Neurophysiol. 2012 Apr;107(8):2123-42. doi: 10.1152/jn.00173.2011. Epub 2012 Jan 25.

Robustness of muscle synergies underlying three-dimensional force generation at the hand in healthy humans.

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Sensory Motor Performance Program, Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA.


Previous studies using advanced matrix factorization techniques have shown that the coordination of human voluntary limb movements may be accomplished using combinations of a small number of intermuscular coordination patterns, or muscle synergies. However, the potential use of muscle synergies for isometric force generation has been evaluated mostly using correlational methods. The results of such studies suggest that fixed relationships between the activations of pairs of muscles are relatively rare. There is also emerging evidence that the nervous system uses independent strategies to control movement and force generation, which suggests that one cannot conclude a priori that isometric force generation is accomplished by combining muscle synergies, as shown in movement control. In this study, we used non-negative matrix factorization to evaluate the ability of a few muscle synergies to reconstruct the activation patterns of human arm muscles underlying the generation of three-dimensional (3-D) isometric forces at the hand. Surface electromyographic (EMG) data were recorded from eight key elbow and shoulder muscles during 3-D force target-matching protocols performed across a range of load levels and hand positions. Four synergies were sufficient to explain, on average, 95% of the variance in EMG datasets. Furthermore, we found that muscle synergy composition was conserved across biomechanical task conditions, experimental protocols, and subjects. Our findings are consistent with the view that the nervous system can generate isometric forces by assembling a combination of a small number of muscle synergies, differentially weighted according to task constraints.

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