Humans are known to show anticipatory adjustments in the grip force prior to a self-generated or predictable action or perturbation applied to a hand-held object. We investigated whether humans can also adjust covariation of individual finger forces (multi-finger synergies) prior to self-triggered perturbations. To address this issue, we studied adjustments in multi-digit synergies associated with applied load/torque perturbations while the subjects held a customized handle steadily. The main hypothesis was that the subjects would be able to demonstrate the phenomenon of anticipatory covariation, that is changes in covariation patterns among digit forces and moments of force in anticipation of a perturbation, but only when the perturbation was triggered by the subjects themselves. Based on the principle of superposition (decoupled grasping force and resultant torque control), we also expected to see different adjustments in indices of multi-digit synergies stabilizing the total gripping force and the total moment of force. The task for the subjects (n = 8) was to return the initial handle position as quickly as possible after a perturbation, which consisted of removing one of three loads hanging from the handle. There were six experimental conditions: two types of perturbations (self-triggered and experimenter-triggered) by three positions of the load (left, center, and right). Three-dimensional forces and moments of force recorded from each digit contact were used for the analysis. Indices of covariation among digit forces and among moments of force, previously employed for studying motor synergies, were computed across trials. Positive values of the indices reflected negative covariations of individual digit forces and moments of force (their inter-compensatory changes) to stabilize the total force and moment acting on the handle. In steady-state conditions, subjects showed strong positive indices for both digit forces and digit moments. Under the self-triggered conditions, changes in the indices of digit force and moment covariation were seen about 150 ms prior to the perturbation, while such changes were observed only after the perturbation under the experimenter-triggered conditions. Immediately following a perturbation, the indices of force and moment covariation rapidly changed to negative revealing the lack of inter-compensation among the individual digit forces and moments. Later, both indices showed a recovery to positive values; the recovery was faster in the self-triggered conditions than in the experimenter-triggered ones. During the steady-state phase after the perturbation, the indices of force and moment covariation decreased and increased, respectively, as compared to their values during the steady-state phase prior to the perturbation. We conclude that humans are able to adjust multi-digit synergies involved in prehensile tasks in anticipation of a self-triggered perturbation. These conclusions speak against hypotheses on the organization of multi-element actions based on optimal control principles. Different changes in the indices of force and moment covariation after a perturbation corroborate the principle of superposition. We discuss relations of anticipatory covariation to anticipatory postural adjustments.
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