Patterns of whole-body muscle activations following vertical perturbations during standing and walking

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Falls commonly occur due to losses of balance associated with vertical body movements (e.g. reacting to uneven ground, street curbs). Research, however, has focused on horizontal perturbations, such as forward and backward translations of the standing surface. This study describes and compares muscle activation patterns following vertical and horizontal perturbations during standing and walking, and investigates the role of vision during standing postural responses.

Fourteen healthy participants (ten males; 27±4 years-old) responded to downward, upward, forward, and backward perturbations while standing and walking in a virtual reality (VR) facility containing a moveable platform with an embedded treadmill; participants were also exposed to visual perturbations in which only the virtual scenery moved. We collected bilateral surface electromyography (EMG) signals from 8 muscles (tibialis anterior, rectus femoris, rectus abdominis, external oblique, gastrocnemius, biceps femoris, paraspinals, deltoids). Parameters included onset latency, duration of activation, and activation magnitude. Standing perturbations comprised dynamic-camera (congruent), static-camera (incongruent) and eyes-closed sensory conditions. ANOVAs were used to compare the effects of perturbation direction and sensory condition across muscles.

Vertical perturbations induced longer onset latencies and shorter durations of activation with lower activation magnitudes in comparison to horizontal perturbations (p<0.0001). Downward perturbations while standing generated earlier activation of anterior muscles to facilitate flexion (for example, p=0.0005 and p=0.0021 when comparing the early activators, rectus femoris and tibialis anterior, to a late activator, the paraspinals), whereas upward perturbations generated earlier activation of posterior muscles to facilitate extension (for example, p<0.0001 and p=0.0004, when comparing the early activators, biceps femoris and gastrocnemius, to a late activator, the rectus abdominis). Static-camera conditions induced longer onset latencies (p=0.0085 and p<0.0001 compared to eyes-closed and dynamic-camera conditions, respectively), whereas eyes-closed conditions induced longer durations of activation (p=0.0001 and p=0.0008 compared to static-camera and dynamic-camera, respectively) and larger activation magnitudes. During walking, downward perturbations promptly activated contralateral trunk and deltoid muscles (e.g., p=0.0036 for contralateral deltoid versus a late activator, the ipsilateral tibialis anterior), and upward perturbations triggered early activation of trunk flexors (e.g., p=0.0308 for contralateral rectus abdominis versus a late activator, the ipsilateral gastrocnemius). Visual perturbations elicited muscle activation in 67.7% of trials.

Our results demonstrate that vertical (vs. horizontal) perturbations generate unique balance-correcting muscle activations, which were consistent with counteracting vertical body extension induced by downward perturbations and vertical body flexion induced by upward perturbations. Availability of visual input appears to affect response efficiency, and incongruent visual input can adversely affect response triggering. Our findings have clinical implications for the design of robotic exoskeletons (to ensure user safety in dynamic balance environments) and for perturbation-based balance and gait rehabilitation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-18
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of neuroengineering and rehabilitation
Issue number75
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Virtual reality
  • Balance
  • Gait
  • Perturbations


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