Independent control of reflex and volitional EMG modulation during sinusoidal pursuit tracking in humans

M. T.V. Johnson, A. N. Kipnis, M. C. Lee, T. J. Ebner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


It is well known that during volitional sinusoidal tracking the long-latency reflex modulates in parallel with the volitional EMG activity. In this study, a series of experiments are reported demonstrating several conditions in which an uncoupling of reflex from volitional activity occurs. The paradigm consists of a visually guided task in which the subject tracked a sinusoid with the wrist. The movement was perturbed by constant torque or controlled velocity perturbations at 45° intervals of the tracking phase. Volitional and reflex-evoked EMG and wrist displacement as functions of the tracking phase were recorded. The relationship of both short-latency (30-60 ms) and longer-latency (60-100 ms) reflex components to the volitional EMG was evaluated. In reflex tracking, the peak reflex amplitude occurs at phases of tracking which correspond to a maximum of wrist joint angular velocity in the direction of homonymous muscle shortening and a minimum of wrist compliance. Uncoupling of the reflex and volitional EMG was observed in three situations. First, during passive movement of the wrist through the sinusoidal tracking cycle perturbation-evoked long-latency stretch reflex peak is modulated as for normal, volitional tracking. However, with passive joint movement the volitional EMG modulation is undetectable. Second, a subset of subjects demonstrate a normally modulated and positioned long-latency reflex with a single peak. However, these subjects have distinct bimodal peaks of volitional EMG. Third, the imposition of an anti-elastic load (positive position feedback) shifts the volitional EMG envelope by as much as 180° along the tracking phase when compared with conventional elastic loading. Yet the long-latency reflex peak remains at its usual phase in the tracking cycle, corresponding to the maximal velocity in the direction of muscle shortening. Furthermore, comparison of the results from elastic and anti-elastic loads reveals a dissociation of short- and long-latency reflex activity, with the short-latency reflex shifting with the volitional EMG envelope. Comparable results were also obtained for controlled velocity perturbations used to control for changes in joint compliance. The uncoupling of the reflex and volitional EMG activity in the present series of experiments points to a flexible relationship between reflex and volitional control systems, altered by peripheral input and external load.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)347-362
Number of pages16
JournalExperimental Brain Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 1993


  • Human
  • Pursuit tracking
  • Reflex modulation
  • Stretch reflex
  • Wrist


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