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Beyond muscles stiffness: importance of state-estimation to account for very fast motor corrections.

ABSTRACT

Feedback delays are a major challenge for any controlled process, and yet we are able to easily control limb movements with speed and grace. A popular hypothesis suggests that the brain largely mitigates the impact of feedback delays (∼50 ms) by regulating the limb intrinsic visco-elastic properties (or impedance) with muscle co-contraction, which generates forces proportional to changes in joint angle and velocity with zero delay. Although attractive, this hypothesis is often based on estimates of limb impedance that include neural feedback, and therefore describe the entire motor system. In addition, this approach does not systematically take into account that muscles exhibit high intrinsic impedance only for small perturbations (short-range impedance). As a consequence, it remains unclear how the nervous system handles large perturbations, as well as disturbances encountered during movement when short-range impedance cannot contribute. We address this issue by comparing feedback responses to load pulses applied to the elbow of human subjects with theoretical simulations. After validating the model parameters, we show that the ability of humans to generate fast and accurate corrective movements is compatible with a control strategy based on state estimation. We also highlight the merits of delay-uncompensated robust control, which can mitigate the impact of internal model errors, but at the cost of slowing feedback corrections. We speculate that the puzzling observation of presynaptic inhibition of peripheral afferents in the spinal cord at movement onset helps to counter the destabilizing transition from high muscle impedance during posture to low muscle impedance during movement.