We studied adjustments in digit forces and moments during holding a vertically oriented handle under slow, externally imposed changes in the width of the grasp. Subjects (n = 8) grasped a customized motorized handle with five digits and held it statically in the air. The handle width either increased (expanded) or decreased (contracted) at a rate of 1.0, 1.5, or 2.0 mm/s, while the subjects were asked to ignore the handle width changes, and their attention was distracted. External torques of 0.0, 0.25, and 0.5 Nm were applied to the handle in two directions. Forces and moments at the digit tips were measured with six-component sensors. The analysis was performed at the virtual finger (VF) and individual finger (IF) levels (VF is an imagined finger that produces the same wrench, i.e., the force and moment, as several fingers combined). In all the tasks, the normal VF and thumb forces increased with the handle expansion and decreased with the handle contraction. Similar behavior was seen for the thumb tangential force. In contrast, the VF tangential force decreased with the handle expansion and increased with the handle contraction. The changes in the tangential forces assisted the perturbations in the tasks requiring exertion of the supination moments and annulled the perturbation in the pronation effort tasks. In the former tasks, the equilibrium was maintained by the changes of the moments of normal forces, whereas in the latter tasks, the equilibrium was maintained by the changes of the moments of the tangential forces. Analysis at the IF level has shown that the resultant force and moment exerted on the object could arise from dissimilar adjustments of individual fingers to the same handle width change. The complex adjustments of digit forces to handle width change may be viewed as coming from two sources. First, there are local spring-like adjustments of individual digit forces and moments caused by both mechanical properties of the digits and the action of spinal reflexes. These stiffness-like reactions mainly assist in perturbing the rotational equilibrium of the object rather than in maintaining it. Second, there are tilt-preventing adjustments defined by the common task constraints that unite the digits into a task-specific synergy. The "virtual springs theory" developed in robotics literature is insufficient for describing the phenomena observed in human grasping.
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