Dexterous object manipulation requires anticipatory control of digit positions and forces. Despite extensive studies on sensorimotor learning of digit forces, how humans learn to coordinate digit positions and forces has never been addressed. Furthermore, the functional role of anticipatory modulation of digit placement to object properties remains to be investigated. We addressed these questions by asking human subjects (12 females, 12 males) to grasp and lift an inverted T-shaped object using precision grip at constrained or self-chosen locations. The task requirement was to minimize object roll during lift. When digit position was not constrained, subjects could have implemented many equally valid digit position-force coordination patterns. However, choice of digit placement might also have resulted in large trial-to-trial variability of digit position, hence challenging the extent to which the CNS could have relied on sensorimotor memories for anticipatory control of digit forces. We hypothesized that subjects would modulate digit placement for optimal force distribution and digit forces as a function of variable digit positions. All subjects learned to minimize object roll within the first three trials, and the unconstrained device was associated with significantly smaller grip forces but larger variability of digit positions. Importantly, however, digit load force modulation compensated for position variability, thus ensuring consistent object roll minimization on each trial. This indicates that subjects learned object manipulation by integrating sensorimotor memories with sensory feedback about digit positions. These results are discussed in the context of motor equivalence and sensorimotor integration of grasp kinematics and kinetics.
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