The planning and execution of human arm movements is still unresolved. An ongoing controversy is whether we plan a movement in kinematic coordinates and convert these coordinates with an inverse internal model into motor commands (like muscle activation) or whether we combine a few muscle synergies or equilibrium points to move a hand, e.g., between two targets. The first hypothesis implies that a planner produces a desired end-effector position for all time points; the second relies on the dynamics of the muscular-skeletal system for a given control command to produce a continuous end-effector trajectory. To distinguish between these two possibilities, we use a visuomotor adaptation experiment.
Subjects moved a pen on a graphics tablet and observed the pen's mapped position onto a screen (subjects quickly adapted to this mapping). The task was to move a cursor between two points in a given time window. In the adaptation test, we manipulated the velocity profile of the cursor feedback such that the shape of the trajectories remained unchanged (for straight paths). If humans would use a kinematic plan and map at each time the desired end-effector position onto control commands, subjects should adapt to the above manipulation. In a similar experiment, Wolpert et al (1995) showed adaptation to changes in the curvature of trajectories. This result, however, cannot rule out a shift of an equilibrium point or an additional synergy activation between start and end point of a movement.
In our experiment, subjects did two sessions, one control without and one with velocity-profile manipulation. To skew the velocity profile of the cursor trajectory, we added to the current velocity, v, the function 0.8*v*cos(pi + pi*x), where x is the projection of the cursor position onto the start-goal line divided by the distance start to goal (x=0 at the start point).
As result, subjects did not adapt to this manipulation: for all subjects, the true hand motion was not significantly modified in a direction consistent with adaptation, despite that the visually presented motion differed significantly from the control motion.
One may still argue that this difference in motion was insufficient to be processed visually. Thus, as a control experiment, we replayed control and modified motions to the subjects and asked which of the two motions appeared 'more natural'. Subjects chose the unperturbed motion as more natural significantly better than chance.
In summary, for a visuomotor transformation task, the hypothesis of a planned continuous end-effector trajectory predicts adaptation to a modified velocity profile. The current experiment found no adaptation under such transformation.