Effective force control by muscle synergies

Denise J. Berger, Andrea d'Avella

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Muscle synergies have been proposed as a way for the central nervous system (CNS) to simplify the generation of motor commands and they have been shown to explain a large fraction of the variation in the muscle patterns across a variety of conditions. However, whether human subjects are able to control forces and movements effectively with a small set of synergies has not been tested directly. Here we show that muscle synergies can be used to generate target forces in multiple directions with the same accuracy achieved using individual muscles. We recorded electromyographic (EMG) activity from 13 arm muscles and isometric hand forces during a force reaching task in a virtual environment. From these data we estimated the force associated to each muscle by linear regression and we identified muscle synergies by non-negative matrix factorization. We compared trajectories of a virtual mass displaced by the force estimated using the entire set of recorded EMGs to trajectories obtained using 4-5 muscle synergies. While trajectories were similar, when feedback was provided according to force estimated from recorded EMGs (EMG-control) on average trajectories generated with the synergies were less accurate. However, when feedback was provided according to recorded force (force-control) we did not find significant differences in initial angle error and endpoint error. We then tested whether synergies could be used as effectively as individual muscles to control cursor movement in the force reaching task by providing feedback according to force estimated from the projection of the recorded EMGs into synergy space (synergy-control). Human subjects were able to perform the task immediately after switching from force-control to EMG-control and synergy-control and we found no differences between initial movement direction errors and endpoint errors in all control modes. These results indicate that muscle synergies provide an effective strategy for motor coordination.

Original languageEnglish
Article number46
JournalFrontiers in Computational Neuroscience
Issue number1 APR
Publication statusPublished - Apr 17 2014


  • Electromyography
  • Isometric force
  • Modularity
  • Myoelectric control
  • Non-negative matrix factorization
  • Reaching movements

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience (miscellaneous)
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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