We studied changes in multi-finger synergies associated with predictable and unpredictable force perturbations applied to a finger during a multi-finger constant total force production task. The main hypothesis was that indices of multi-finger synergies can show anticipatory changes in preparation for a predictable perturbation. Subjects sat in a chair and pressed on force sensors with the four fingers of the right hand. The task was to produce a constant level of total force. The fingers acted against loads that produced upward directed forces. The loads (applied either to the index or to the ring finger) could be disengaged either by the subject or by the experimenter. An index of finger co-variation, ΔV was computed across sets of 12 trials at each time sample and for all tasks separately. During steady-state force production, all subjects showed positive ΔV values corresponding to strong negative covariation among finger forces interpreted as a force-stabilizing synergy. Prior to self-triggered unloading, subjects showed an anticipatory drop in ΔV that started 100-125 ms prior to the unloading time. Such early changes were absent in trials with experimenter-triggered unloading. After an unloading, subjects changed forces of both perturbed and unperturbed fingers and reached a new sharing pattern of the total force. In experimenter-triggered conditions, changes in the forces of unperturbed fingers could be seen as early as 120 ms following an unloading. The index ΔV dropped following a perturbation and then recovered; the recovery occurred faster in self-triggered conditions. We conclude that humans can use feed-forward changes in multi-finger synergies (anticipatory synergy adjustments) in anticipation of a predictable perturbation. These changes may help avoid prolonged weakening of a multi-digit force-stabilizing synergy. We discuss a possibility that anticipatory postural adjustments may represent a particular case of the phenomenon of anticipatory synergy adjustments and suggest a hierarchical control scheme that incorporates a possibility of independent control over the output of a multi-element system and covariation patterns among outputs of its elements.
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