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J Neurophysiol. 2012 May;107(9):2549-59. doi: 10.1152/jn.00866.2011. Epub 2012 Feb 1.

Fast visual prediction and slow optimization of preferred walking speed.

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Department of Biomedical Physiology & Kinesiology, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Dr., Burnaby, BC, Canada.


People prefer walking speeds that minimize energetic cost. This may be accomplished by directly sensing metabolic rate and adapting gait to minimize it, but only slowly due to the compounded effects of sensing delays and iterative convergence. Visual and other sensory information is available more rapidly and could help predict which gait changes reduce energetic cost, but only approximately because it relies on prior experience and an indirect means to achieve economy. We used virtual reality to manipulate visually presented speed while 10 healthy subjects freely walked on a self-paced treadmill to test whether the nervous system beneficially combines these two mechanisms. Rather than manipulating the speed of visual flow directly, we coupled it to the walking speed selected by the subject and then manipulated the ratio between these two speeds. We then quantified the dynamics of walking speed adjustments in response to perturbations of the visual speed. For step changes in visual speed, subjects responded with rapid speed adjustments (lasting <2 s) and in a direction opposite to the perturbation and consistent with returning the visually presented speed toward their preferred walking speed, when visual speed was suddenly twice (one-half) the walking speed, subjects decreased (increased) their speed. Subjects did not maintain the new speed but instead gradually returned toward the speed preferred before the perturbation (lasting >300 s). The timing and direction of these responses strongly indicate that a rapid predictive process informed by visual feedback helps select preferred speed, perhaps to complement a slower optimization process that seeks to minimize energetic cost.

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