Muscle Synergies in Children Walking and Running on a Treadmill

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 15 (2021)
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Abstract

Muscle synergies reflect the presence of a common neural input to multiple muscles. Steering small sets of synergies is commonly believed to simplify the control of complex motor tasks like walking and running. When these locomotor patterns emerge, it is likely that synergies emerge as well. We hence hypothesized that in children learning to run the number of accompanying synergies increases and that some of the synergies’ activities display a temporal shift related to a reduced stance phase as observed in adults. We investigated the development of locomotion in 23 children aged 2–9 years of age and compared them with seven young adults. Muscle activity of 15 bilateral leg, trunk, and arm muscles, ground reaction forces, and kinematics were recorded during comfortable treadmill walking and running, followed by a muscle synergy analysis. We found that toddlers and preschoolers utilize a “walk-run strategy” when learning to run: they managed the fastest speeds on the treadmill by combining double support and flight phases. In particular the activity duration of the medial gastrocnemius muscle was weakly correlated with age. The number of synergies across groups and conditions needed to cover sufficient data variation ranged between four and eight. The number of synergies tended to be smaller in toddlers than it did in preschoolers and school-age children but the adults had the lowest number for both conditions. Against our expectations, the age groups did not differ significantly in the timing or duration of synergies. We believe that the increase in the number of muscle synergies in older children relates to motor learning and exploration. The ability to run with a FP is clearly associated with an increase in the number of muscle synergies.

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