There is much experimental evidence for the existence of biomechanical constraints which simplify the problem of control of multi-segment movements. In addition, it has been hypothesized that movements are controlled using a small set of basic temporal components or activation patterns, shared by several different muscles and reflecting global kinematic and kinetic goals. Here we review recent studies on human locomotion showing that muscle activity is accounted for by a combination of few basic patterns, each one timed at a different phase of the gait cycle. Similar patterns are involved in walking and running at different speeds, walking forwards or backwards, and walking under different loading conditions. The corresponding weights of distribution to different muscles may change as a function of the condition, allowing highly flexible control. Biomechanical correlates of each activation pattern have been described, leading to the hypothesis that the co-ordination of limb and body segments arises from the coupling of neural oscillators between each other and with limb mechanical oscillators. Muscle activations need only intervene during limited time epochs to force intrinsic oscillations of the system when energy is lost.
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