Promoting Motor Variability During Robotic Assistance Enhances Motor Learning of Dynamic Tasks

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Despite recent advances in robot-assisted training, the benefits of haptic guidance on motor (re)learning are still limited. While haptic guidance may increase task performance during training, it may also decrease participants’ effort and interfere with the perception of the environment dynamics, hindering somatosensory information crucial for motor learning. Importantly, haptic guidance limits motor variability, a factor considered essential for learning. We propose that Model Predictive Controllers (MPC) might be good alternatives to haptic guidance since they minimize the assisting forces and promote motor variability during training. We conducted a study with 40 healthy participants to investigate the effectiveness of MPCs on learning a dynamic task. The task consisted of swinging a virtual pendulum to hit incoming targets with the pendulum ball. The environment was haptically rendered using a Delta robot. We designed two MPCs: the first MPC—end-effector MPC—applied the optimal assisting forces on the end-effector. A second MPC—ball MPC—applied its forces on the virtual pendulum ball to further reduce the assisting forces. The participants’ performance during training and learning at short- and long-term retention tests were compared to a control group who trained without assistance, and a group that trained with conventional haptic guidance. We hypothesized that the end-effector MPC would promote motor variability and minimize the assisting forces during training, and thus, promote learning. Moreover, we hypothesized that the ball MPC would enhance the performance and motivation during training but limit the motor variability and sense of agency (i.e., the feeling of having control over their movements), and therefore, limit learning. We found that the MPCs reduce the assisting forces compared to haptic guidance. Training with the end-effector MPC increases the movement variability and does not hinder the pendulum swing variability during training, ultimately enhancing the learning of the task dynamics compared to the other groups. Finally, we observed that increases in the sense of agency seemed to be associated with learning when training with the end-effector MPC. In conclusion, training with MPCs enhances motor learning of tasks with complex dynamics and are promising strategies to improve robotic training outcomes in neurological patients.

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