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J Physiol. 2002 Sep 1;543(Pt 2):709-17.

Obstacle avoidance during human walking: transfer of motor skill from one leg to the other.

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ParaCare, Institute for Rehabilitation and Research at the University Hospital Balgrist, Zurich, Switzerland.


The aim of this study was to evaluate whether a newly acquired locomotor skill can be transferred to the mirror condition. Subjects were trained to step over an obstacle on a treadmill, the appearance of which was signalled by an acoustic stimulus, while visual information was prevented. Feedback information about foot clearance was provided by acoustic signals. During two successive runs (each consisting of 100 steps over the obstacle) the same leg was leading (i.e. the leg crossing the obstacle first). In the following third run, the leading and trailing legs were changed. During each of the three successive runs the adaptational changes were analysed by recording leg muscle electromyographic (EMG) activity, joint angle trajectories and foot clearance over the obstacle. The training effect gained between the first and second runs and the transfer to the mirror condition (third run) were evaluated. Adaptational changes of all measures, except ankle joint trajectory, could to a significant extent be transferred to the mirror condition. No side-specific differences in the amount of transfer were found, neither from the right to the left side, nor vice versa. These observations are at variance with adaptational changes observed during split-belt walking or one-legged hopping on a treadmill, where no transfer to the mirror condition occurred. It is assumed that this might be due to the specific requirements of the tasks and the leg muscles involved. While in the split-belt and hopping experiments leg extensor muscles are mainly involved, leg flexors predominate in the performance of the present task. It is hypothesised that the learning effects observed in the present experiments are mediated at a higher level (e.g. brainstem) of locomotor control.

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