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Title: Generalizability of muscle synergies in isometric force generation versus point-to-point reaching in the human upper extremity workspace

Isometric force generation and kinematic reaching in the upper extremity has been found to be represented by a limited number of muscle synergies, even across task-specific variations. However, the extent of the generalizability of muscle synergies between these two motor tasks within the arm workspace remains unknown. In this study, we recorded electromyographic (EMG) signals from 13 different arm, shoulder, and back muscles of ten healthy individuals while they performed isometric and kinematic center-out target matches to one of 12 equidistant directional targets in the horizontal plane and at each of four starting arm positions. Non-negative matrix factorization was applied to the EMG data to identify the muscle synergies. Five and six muscle synergies were found to represent the isometric force generation and point-to-point reaches. We also found that the number and composition of muscle synergies were conserved across the arm workspace per motor task. Similar tuning directions of muscle synergy activation profiles were observed at different starting arm locations. Between the isometric and kinematic motor tasks, we found that two to four out of five muscle synergies were common in the composition and activation profiles across the starting arm locations. The greater number of muscle synergies that were involved in achieving a target match in the reaching task compared to the isometric task may explain the complexity of neuromotor control in arm reaching movements. Overall, our results may provide further insight into the neuromotor compartmentalization of shared muscle synergies between two different arm motor tasks and can be utilized to assess motor disabilities in individuals with upper limb motor impairments.

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Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
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Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
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Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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  1. Abstract Background

    Muscle synergies, computationally identified intermuscular coordination patterns, have been utilized to characterize neuromuscular control and learning in humans. However, it is unclear whether it is possible to alter the existing muscle synergies or develop new ones in an intended way through a relatively short-term motor exercise in adulthood. This study aimed to test the feasibility of expanding the repertoire of intermuscular coordination patterns through an isometric, electromyographic (EMG) signal-guided exercise in the upper extremity (UE) of neurologically intact individuals.


    10 participants were trained for six weeks to induce independent control of activating a pair of elbow flexor muscles that tended to be naturally co-activated in force generation. An untrained isometric force generation task was performed to assess the effect of the training on the intermuscular coordination of the trained UE. We applied a non-negative matrix factorization on the EMG signals recorded from 12 major UE muscles during the assessment to identify the muscle synergies. In addition, the performance of training tasks and the characteristics of individual muscles’ activity in both time and frequency domains were quantified as the training outcomes.


    Typically, in two weeks of the training, participants could use newly developed muscle synergies when requested to perform new, untrained motor tasks by activating their UE muscles in the trained way. Meanwhile, their habitually expressed muscle synergies, the synergistic muscle activation groups that were used before the training, were conserved throughout the entire training period. The number of muscle synergies activated for the task performance remained the same. As the new muscle synergies were developed, the neuromotor control of the trained muscles reflected in the metrics, such as the ratio between the targeted muscles, number of matched targets, and task completion time, was improved.


    These findings suggest that our protocol can increase the repertoire of readily available muscle synergies and improve motor control by developing the activation of new muscle coordination patterns in healthy adults within a relatively short period. Furthermore, the study shows the potential of the isometric EMG-guided protocol as a neurorehabilitation tool for aiming motor deficits induced by abnormal intermuscular coordination after neurological disorders.

    Trial registration

    This study was registered at the Clinical Research Information Service (CRiS) of the Korea National Institute of Health (KCT0005803) on 1/22/2021.

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