The development of goal-directed reaching in infants: hand trajectory formation and joint torque control

Jürgen Konczak, Maike Borutta, Helge Topka, Johannes Dichgans

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152 Scopus citations


Nine young infants were followed longitudinally from 4 to 15 months of age. We recorded early spontaneous movements and reaching movements to a stationary target. Time-position data of the hand (endpoint), shoulder, and elbow were collected using an optoelectronic measurement system (ELITE). We analyzed the endpoint kinematics and the intersegmental dynamics of the shoulder and elbow joint to investigate how changes in proximal torque control determined the development of hand trajectory formation. Two developmental phases of hand trajectory formation were identified: a first phase of rapid improvements between 16 and 24 weeks of age, the time of reaching onset for all infants. During that time period the number of movement units per reach and movement time decreased dramatically. In a second phase (28-64 weeks), a period of "fine-tuning" of the sensorimotor system, we saw slower, more gradual changes in the endpoint kinematics. The analysis of the underlying intersegmental joint torques revealed the following results: first, the range of muscular and motiondependent torques (relative to body weight) did not change significantly with age. That is, early reaching was not confined by limitations in producing task-adequate levels of muscular torque. Second, improvements in the endpoint kinematics were not accomplished by minimizing amplitude of muscle and reactive torques. Third, the relative timing of muscular and motion-dependent torque peaks showed a systematic development toward an adult timing profile with increasing age. In conclusion, the development toward invariant characteristics of the hand trajectory is mirrored by concurrent changes in the control of joint forces. The acquisition of stable patterns of intersegmental coordination is not achieved by simply regulating force amplitude, but more so by modulating the correct timing of joint force production and by the system's use of reactive forces. Our findings support the view that development of reaching is a process of unsupervised learning with no external or innate teacher prescribing the desired kinematics or kinetics of the movement.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)156-168
Number of pages13
JournalExperimental Brain Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 1995


  • Human
  • Infant reaching
  • Inverse dynamics
  • Motor learning
  • Relative timing


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