It has been postulated that the central nervous system (CNS) can tune the mechanical behavior of a joint by altering reflex stiffness in a task-dependant manner. However, most of the evidence supporting this hypothesis has come from the analysis of H-reflexes or electromyogram (EMG) responses. Changes in overall stiffness have been documented but, as yet, there is no direct evidence that the CNS can control reflex stiffness independently of the intrinsic stiffness. We have used a novel identification algorithm to estimate intrinsic and reflex stiffness and feed it back to subjects in real-time. Using this biofeedback, subjects could learn to control reflex stiffness independently of intrinsic stiffness. At low torque levels, subjects could vary their reflex stiffness gain by a factor of 4, while maintaining elastic stiffness and torque constant. EMG measurements confirmed that the contraction levels of the ankle muscles remained constant. Further experiments showed that subjects could change their reflexes rapidly on command. Thus, we conclude that the CNS can control reflex stiffness independently and so has great flexibility in adjusting the mechanical properties of a joint to meet functional requirements.
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