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J Neurophysiol. 2013 Feb;109(4):1107-16. doi: 10.1152/jn.00152.2012. Epub 2012 Nov 21.

Does a basic deficit in force control underlie cerebellar ataxia?

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Department of Mechanical Engineering, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.


Because damage to the cerebellum results in characteristic movement incoordination known as "ataxia," it has been hypothesized that it is involved in estimation of limb dynamics that occur during movement. However, cerebellar function may extend beyond movement to force control in general, with or without movement. Here we tested whether the cerebellum is involved in controlling force separate from estimating limb dynamics and whether ataxia could result from a deficit in force control. We studied patients with cerebellar ataxia controlling their arm force isometrically; in this condition arm dynamics are absent and there is no need for (or effect from an impairment in) estimations of limb dynamics. Subjects were required to control their force magnitude, direction, or both. Cerebellar patients were able to match force magnitude or direction similarly to control subjects. Furthermore, when controlling force magnitude, they intuitively chose directions (not specified) that required minimal effort at the joint level--this ability was also similar to control subjects. In contrast, cerebellar patients performed significantly worse than control subjects when asked to match both force magnitude and direction. This was surprising, since they did not exhibit significant impairment in doing either in isolation. These results show that cerebellum-dependent computations are not limited to estimations of body dynamics needed for active movement. Deficits occur even in isometric conditions, but apparently only when multiple degrees of freedom must be controlled simultaneously. Thus a fundamental cerebellar operation may be combining/coordinating degrees of freedom across many kinds of movements and behaviors.

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