The objective of this study was to determine if independent central pattern generating elements controlling the legs in bipedal and unipedal locomotion is a viable theory for locomotor propulsion in humans. Coordinative coupling of the limbs could then be accomplished through mechanical interactions and ipsilateral feedback control rather than through central interlimb neural pathways. Pedaling was chosen as the locomotor task to study because interlimb mechanics can be significantly altered, as pedaling can be executed with the use of either one leg or two legs (cf. walking) and because the load on the limb can be well-controlled. Subjects pedaled a modified bicycle ergometer in a two-legged (bilateral) and a one- legged (unilateral) pedaling condition. The loading on the leg during unilateral pedaling was designed to be identical to the loading experienced by the leg during bilateral pedaling. This loading was achieved by having a trained human 'motor' pedal along with the subject and exert on the opposite crank the torque that the subject's contralateral leg generated in bilateral pedaling. The human 'motor' was successful at reproducing each subject's one- leg crank torque. The shape of the motor's torque trajectory was similar to that of subjects, and the amount of work done during extension and flexion was not significantly different. Thus the same muscle coordination pattern would allow subjects to pedal successfully in both the bilateral and unilateral conditions, and the afferent signals from the pedaling leg could be the same for both conditions. Although the overall work done by each leg did not change, an 86% decrease in retarding (negative) crank torque during limb flexion was measured in all 11 subjects during the unilateral condition. This corresponded to an increase in integrated electromyography of tibialis anterior (70%), rectus femoris (43%), and biceps femoris (59%) during flexion. Even given visual torque feedback in the unilateral condition, subjects still showed a 33% decrease in negative torque during flexion. These results are consistent with the existence of an inhibitory pathway from elements controlling extension onto contralateral flexion elements, with the pathway operating during two-legged pedaling but not during one-legged pedaling, in which case flexor activity increases. However, this centrally mediated coupling can be overcome with practice, as the human 'motor' was able to effectively match the bilateral crank torque after a longer practice regimen. We conclude that the sensorimotor control of a unipedal task is affected by interlimb neural pathways. Thus a task performed unilaterally is not performed with the same muscle coordination utilized in a bipedal condition, even if such coordination would be equally effective in the execution of the unilateral task.
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