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  1. Abstract Background

    Numerous studies showed that postural balance improves through light touch on a stable surface highlighting the importance of haptic information, seemingly downplaying the mechanical contributions of the support. The present study examined the mechanical effects of canes for assisting balance in healthy individuals challenged by standing on a beam.

    Methods

    Sixteen participants supported themselves with two canes, one in each hand, and applied minimal, preferred, or maximum force onto the canes. They positioned the canes in the frontal plane or in a tripod configuration. Statistical analysis used a linear mixed model to evaluate the effects on the center of pressure and the center of mass.

    Results

    The canes significantly reduced the variability of the center of pressure and the center of mass to the same level as when standing on the ground. Increasing the exerted force beyond the preferred level yielded no further benefits, although in the preferred force condition, participants exploited the altered mechanics by resting their arms on the canes. The tripod configuration allowed for larger variability of the center of pressure in the task-irrelevant anterior–posterior dimension. High forces had a destabilizing effect on the canes: the displacement of the hand on the cane handle increased with the force.

    Conclusions

    Given this static instability, these results show that using canes can provide not only mechanical benefits but also challenges. From a control perspective, effort can be reduced by resting the arms on the canes and by channeling noise in the task-irrelevant dimensions. However, larger forces exerted onto the canes can also have destabilizing effects and the instability of the canes needs to be counteracted, possibly by arm and shoulder stiffness. Insights into the variety of mechanical effects is important for the design of canes and the instructions of how to use them.

     
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  2. Abstract Background

    Maintaining upright posture is an unstable task that requires sophisticated neuro-muscular control. Humans use foot–ground interaction forces, characterized by point of application, magnitude, and direction to manage body accelerations. When analyzing the directions of the ground reaction forces of standing humans in the frequency domain, previous work found a consistent pattern in different frequency bands. To test whether this frequency-dependent behavior provided a distinctive signature of neural control or was a necessary consequence of biomechanics, this study simulated quiet standing and compared the results with human subject data.

    Methods

    Aiming to develop the simplest competent and neuromechanically justifiable dynamic model that could account for the pattern observed across multiple subjects, we first explored the minimum number of degrees of freedom required for the model. Then, we applied a well-established optimal control method that was parameterized to maximize physiologically-relevant insight to stabilize the balancing model.

    Results

    If a standing human was modeled as a single inverted pendulum, no controller could reproduce the experimentally observed pattern. The simplest competent model that approximated a standing human was a double inverted pendulum with torque-actuated ankle and hip joints. A range of controller parameters could stabilize this model and reproduce the general trend observed in experimental data; this result seems to indicate a biomechanical constraint and not a consequence of control. However, details of the frequency-dependent pattern varied substantially across tested control parameter values. The set of parameters that best reproduced the human experimental results suggests that the control strategy employed by human subjects to maintain quiet standing was best described by minimal control effort with an emphasis on ankle torque.

    Conclusions

    The findings suggest that the frequency-dependent pattern of ground reaction forces observed in quiet standing conveys quantitative information about human control strategies. This study’s method might be extended to investigate human neural control strategies in different contexts of balance, such as with an assistive device or in neurologically impaired subjects.

     
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  3. Abstract

    Additive manufacturing (AM) of medical devices such as orthopedic implants and hearing aids is highly attractive because of the potential of AM to match the complex form and mechanics of individual human bodies. Externally worn and implantable tissue‐support devices, such as ankle or knee braces, and hernia repair mesh, offer a new opportunity for AM to mimic tissue‐like mechanics and improve both patient outcomes and comfort. Here, it is demonstrated how explicit programming of the toolpath in an extrusion AM process can enable new, flexible mesh materials having digitally tailored mechanical properties and geometry. Meshes are fabricated by extrusion of thermoplastics, optionally with continuous fiber reinforcement, using a continuous toolpath that tailors the elasticity of unit cells of the mesh via incorporation of slack and modulation of filament–filament bonding. It is shown how the tensile mesh mechanics can be engineered to match the nonlinear response of muscle. An ankle brace with directionally specific inversion stiffness arising from embedded mesh is validated, and further concepts for 3D mesh devices are prototyped.

     
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  4. While the study of unconstrained movements has revealed important features of neural control, generalizing those insights to more sophisticated object manipulation is challenging. Humans excel at physical interaction with objects, even when those objects introduce complex dynamics and kinematic constraints. This study examined humans turning a horizontal planar crank (radius 10.29 cm) at their preferred and three instructed speeds (with visual feedback), both in clockwise and counterclockwise directions. To explore the role of neuromechanical dynamics, the instructed speeds covered a wide range: fast (near the limits of performance), medium (near preferred speed), and very slow (rendering dynamic effects negligible). Because kinematically constrained movements involve significant physical interaction, disentangling neural control from the influences of biomechanics presents a challenge. To address it, we modeled the interactive dynamics to “subtract off” peripheral biomechanics from observed force and kinematic data, thereby estimating aspects of underlying neural action that may be expressed in terms of motion. We demonstrate the value of this method: remarkably, an approximately elliptical path emerged, and speed minima coincided with curvature maxima, similar to what is seen in unconstrained movements, even though the hand moved at nearly constant speed along a constant-curvature path. These findings suggest that the neural controller takes advantage of peripheral biomechanics to simplify physical interaction. As a result, patterns seen in unconstrained movements persist even when physical interaction prevents their expression in hand kinematics. The reemergence of a speed-curvature relation indicates that it is due, at least in part, to neural processes that emphasize smoothness and predictability. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Physically interacting with kinematic constraints is commonplace in everyday actions. We report a study of humans turning a crank, a circular constraint that imposes constant hand path curvature and hence should suppress variations of hand speed due to the power-law speed-curvature relation widely reported for unconstrained motions. Remarkably, we found that, when peripheral biomechanical factors are removed, a speed-curvature relation reemerges, indicating that it is, at least in part, of neural origin. 
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  5. Humans have an astonishing ability to extract hidden information from the movements of others. For example, even with limited kinematic information, humans can distinguish between biological and nonbiological motion, identify the age and gender of a human demonstrator, and recognize what action a human demonstrator is performing. It is unknown, however, whether they can also estimate hidden mechanical properties of another’s limbs simply by observing their motions. Strictly speaking, identifying an object’s mechanical properties, such as stiffness, requires contact. With only motion information, unambiguous measurements of stiffness are fundamentally impossible, since the same limb motion can be generated with an infinite number of stiffness values. However, we show that humans can readily estimate the stiffness of a simulated limb from its motion. In three experiments, we found that participants linearly increased their rating of arm stiffness as joint stiffness parameters in the arm controller increased. This was remarkable since there was no physical contact with the simulated limb. Moreover, participants had no explicit knowledge of how the simulated arm was controlled. To successfully map nontrivial changes in multijoint motion to changes in arm stiffness, participants likely drew on prior knowledge of human neuromotor control. Having an internal representation consistent with the behavior of the controller used to drive the simulated arm implies that this control policy competently captures key features of veridical biological control. Finding that humans can extract latent features of neuromotor control from kinematics also provides new insight into how humans interpret the motor actions of others. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Humans can visually perceive another’s overt motion, but it is unknown whether they can also perceive the hidden dynamic properties of another’s limbs from their motions. Here, we show that humans can correctly infer changes in limb stiffness from nontrivial changes in multijoint limb motion without force information or explicit knowledge of the underlying limb controller. Our findings suggest that humans presume others control motor behavior in such a way that limb stiffness influences motion. 
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