Suboptimal muscle synergy activation patterns generalize their motor function across postures

M. Hongchul Sohn, Lena H. Ting*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


We used a musculoskeletal model to investigate the possible biomechanical and neural bases of using consistent muscle synergy patterns to produce functional motor outputs across different biomechanical conditions, which we define as generalizability. Experimental studies in cats demonstrate that the same muscle synergies are used during reactive postural responses at widely varying configurations, producing similarly-oriented endpoint force vectors with respect to the limb axis. However, whether generalizability across postures arises due to similar biomechanical properties or to neural selection of a particular muscle activation pattern has not been explicitly tested. Here, we used a detailed cat hindlimb model to explore the set of feasible muscle activation patterns that produce experimental synergy force vectors at a target posture, and tested their generalizability by applying them to different test postures. We used three methods to select candidate muscle activation patterns: (1) randomly-selected feasible muscle activation patterns, (2) optimal muscle activation patterns minimizing muscle effort at a given posture, and (3) generalizable muscle activation patterns that explicitly minimized deviations from experimentally-identified synergy force vectors across all postures. Generalizability was measured by the deviation between the simulated force direction of the candidate muscle activation pattern and the experimental synergy force vectors at the test postures. Force angle deviations were the greatest for the randomly selected feasible muscle activation patterns (e.g., >100 º), intermediate for effort-wise optimal muscle activation patterns (e.g., ~20º), and smallest for generalizable muscle activation patterns (e.g., <5 º). Generalizable muscle activation patterns were suboptimal in terms of effort, often exceeding 50% of the maximum possible effort (cf. ^5% in minimum-effort muscle activation patterns). The feasible muscle activation ranges of individual muscles associated with producing a specific synergy force vector was reduced by ~45% when generalizability requirements were imposed. Muscles recruited in the generalizable muscle activation patterns had less sensitive torque-producing characteristics to changes in postures. We conclude that generalization of function across postures does not arise from limb biomechanics or a single optimality criterion. Muscle synergies may reflect acquired motor solutions globally tuned for generalizability across biomechanical contexts, facilitating rapid motor adaptation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number7
JournalFrontiers in Computational Neuroscience
Issue numberFEB
StatePublished - Feb 4 2015


  • Isometric force
  • Motor control
  • Motor modules
  • Musculoskeletal model
  • Postural response

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Neuroscience (miscellaneous)


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