The importance of bilateral sensorimotor signals in coordination of locomotion has been demonstrated in animals but is difficult to ascertain in humans due to confounding effects of mechanical transmission of forces between the legs (i.e., mechanical interleg coupling). In a previous pedaling study, by eliminating mechanical interleg coupling, we showed that muscle coordination of a unipedal task can be shaped by interlimb sensorimotor pathways. Interlimb neural pathways were shown to alter pedaling coordination as subjects pedaling unilaterally exhibited increased flexion-phase muscle activity compared with bilateral pedaling even though the task mechanics performed by the pedaling leg(s) in the unilateral and bilateral pedaling tasks were identical. To further examine the relationship between contralateral sensorimotor state and ipsilateral flexion-phase muscle coordination during pedaling, subjects in this study pedaled with one leg while the contralateral leg either generated an extensor force or relaxed as a servomotor either held that leg stationary or moved it in antiphase with the pedaling leg. In the presence of contralateral extensor force generation, muscle activity in the pedaling leg during limb flexion was reduced. Integrated electromyographic activity of the pedaling-leg hamstring muscles (biceps femoris and semimembranosus) during flexion decreased by 25-30%, regardless of either the amplitude of force generated by the nonpedaling leg or whether the leg was stationary or moving. In contrast, rectus femoris and tibialis anterior activity during flexion decreased only when the contralateral leg generated high rhythmic force concomitant with leg movement. The results are consistent with a contralateral feedforward mechanism triggering flexion-phase hamstrings activity and a contralateral feedback mechanism modulating rectus femoris and tibialis anterior activity during flexion. Because only muscles that contribute to flexion as a secondary function were observed, it is impossible to know whether the modulatory effect also acts on primary, unifunctional, limb flexors or is specific to multifunctional muscles contributing to flexion. The influence of contralateral extensor-phase sensorimotor signals on ipsilateral flexion may reflect bilateral coupling of gain control mechanisms. More generally, these interlimb neural mechanisms may coordinate activity between muscles that perform antagonistic functions on opposite sides of the body. Because pedaling and walking share biomechanical and neuronal control features, these mechanisms may be operational in walking as well as pedaling.
ASJC Scopus subject areas