Neural control of arm movements reveals a tendency to use gravity to simplify joint coordination rather than to decrease muscle effort

Wanyue Wang, Natalia Dounskaia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


How gravity influences neural control of arm movements remains under debate. We tested three alternative interpretations suggested by previous research: (1) that muscular control includes two components, tonic which compensates for gravity and phasic which produces the movement; (2) that there is a tendency to exploit gravity to reduce muscle effort; and (3) that there is a tendency to use a trailing pattern of joint control during which either the shoulder or elbow is rotated actively and the other joint rotates predominantly passively, and to exploit gravity for control of the passively rotated joint. A free-stroke drawing task was performed that required production of center-out strokes within a circle while selecting stroke directions randomly. The circle was positioned in the horizontal, sagittal, and frontal plane. The arm joints freely rotated in space. In each plane, the distribution of the strokes across directions was non-uniform. Directional histograms were built and their peaks were used to identify preferred movement directions. The directional preferences were especially pronounced in the two vertical planes. The upward directions were most preferred. To test the three interpretations, we used a kinetic analysis that determined the role of gravitational torque in the production of movement in the preferred directions. The results supported the third interpretation and provided evidence against the first and second interpretation. The trailing pattern has been associated with reduced neural effort for joint coordination, and therefore, we conclude that the major tendency with respect to gravity is to exploit it for simplification of joint coordination.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)418-432
Number of pages15
StatePublished - Dec 17 2016


  • 3D arm movements
  • inter-segmental dynamics
  • interaction torque
  • muscle energy
  • optimal control

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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