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In multi-joint reaching movements, the motor system may choose any one of an infinite set of possible joint rotations to move the hand between given start and target positions. In order to find out whether reaching movements are represented in Cartesian hand coordinates or in joint coordinates, it is necessary to measure whether hand paths or joint paths have lower variability. We have measured hand paths and rotations of shoulder, elbow and wrist joints simultaneously in five subjects reaching in four orientations in the horizontal plane. As in earlier studies, we found a preference for nearly straight hand paths, despite different patterns of joint rotation for different orientations of movement. However, movements in three of four orientations showed a single principal joint, which rotated essentially without reversals. This may reflect optimisation in the motor system, preferring the simplest pattern of joint control for a desired hand path. We used generalised Procrustes analysis to quantify the variability in shape of repeated paths in hand space and joint space. Results showed that hand paths were less variable than the joint angles used to realise them, due to the kinematic redundancy of the limb, suggesting that hand paths, rather than joint angles, are directly represented by the motor system. Nevertheless, movements with straighter hand paths, on average, and those requiring coordinated activity at both shoulder and elbow joints also showed more variability in the shape of the hand path. Other orientations such as movement across the body use primarily a single joint and are less variable at the cost of a slightly curved path. These results suggest that coordinating multiple joints to produce a straight hand path has a definite computational cost. The motor system may perform a trade-off between the benefits of planning reaching movements as straight hand paths and the computational simplicity of executing them using patterns of joint rotation which simplify multi-joint coordination.

Original publication




Journal article


Exp Brain Res

Publication Date





254 - 266


Adult, Hand, Humans, Joints, Kinesis, Movement, Orientation, Rotation, Shoulder, Shoulder Joint