Performance, complexity and dynamics of force maintenance and modulation in young and older adults

  • Knol Hester
  • Huys Raoul
  • Temprado Jean-Jacques
  • Sleimen-Malkoun Rita


The present study addresses how task constraints and aging influence isometric force control. We used two tasks requiring either force maintenance (straight line target force) or force modulation (sine-wave target force) around different force levels and at different modulation frequencies. Force levels were defined relative the individual maximum voluntary contraction. A group of young adults (mean age ± SD = 25 ± 3.6 years) and a group of elderly (mean age = 77 ± 6.4 years) took part in the study. Age-and task-related effects were assessed through differences in: (i) force control accuracy, (ii) time-structure of force fluctuations, and (iii) the contribution of deterministic (predictable) and stochastic (noiselike) dynamic components to the expressed behavior. Performance-wise, the elderly showed a pervasive lower accuracy and higher variability than the young participants. The analysis of fluctuations showed that the elderly produced force signals that were less complex than those of the young adults during the maintenance task, but the reverse was observed in the modulation task. Behavioral complexity results suggest a reduced adaptability to task-constraints with advanced age. Regarding the dynamics, we found comparable generating mechanisms in both age groups for both tasks and in all conditions, namely a fixed-point for force maintenance and a limit-cycle for force modulation. However, aging increased the stochasticity (noise-driven fluctuations) of force fluctuations in the cyclic force modulation, which could be related to the increased complexity found in elderly for this same task. To our knowledge this is the first time that these different perspectives to motor control are used simultaneously to characterize force control capacities. Our findings show their complementarity in revealing distinct aspects of sensorimotor adaptation to task constraints and age-related declines. Although further research is still needed to identify the physiological underpinnings, the used task and methodology are shown to have both fundamental and clinical applications.