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J Neurophysiol. 2012 Oct;108(7):1895-906. doi: 10.1152/jn.00217.2012. Epub 2012 Jul 5.

Modular organization of balance control following perturbations during walking.

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Center for Sensory-Motor Interaction, Department of Health Science and Technology, Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark.


Balance recovery during walking requires complex sensory-motor integration. Mechanisms to avoid falls are active concomitantly with human locomotion motor patterns. It has been suggested that gait can be described by a set of motor modules (synergies), but little is known on the modularity of gait during recovery of balance due to unexpected slips. Our hypothesis was that muscular activation during reactive recovery of balance during gait has a modular organization. The aim of the study was to verify this hypothesis when perturbations were delivered in different directions. Eight healthy men walked on a 7-m walkway, which had a moveable force platform embedded in the middle. Subjects experienced unperturbed walking as well as perturbations delivered in the sagittal (forward and backward) and frontal (leftward and rightward) planes. Bilateral full-body kinematics and surface electromyography (EMG) from lower limbs, trunk, and neck were recorded during walking. Synergies and activation signals were extracted from surface EMG signals. Four modules were sufficient to explain the unperturbed gait and the gait perturbed in any of the perturbation directions. Moreover, three of four modules extracted from the unperturbed gait were the same for gait perturbed forward, leftward, and rightward (similarity in synergies = 0.94 ± 0.03). On the other hand, the activation signals were different between unperturbed and perturbed gait (average correlation coefficient = 0.55 ± 0.16). These strategies to recover balance were robust across subjects. In conclusion, changes in lower limb and trunk kinematics provoked by perturbations were reflected in minimal adjustments in the muscular modular organization of walking, with three of four modules preserved from normal walking. Conversely, the activation signals were all substantially influenced by the perturbations, being the result of integration of afferent information and supraspinal control.

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