, Volume 100, Issue 1, pp 93-106

Vestibular and somatosensory contributions to responses to head and body displacements in stance

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Abstract

The relative contribution of vestibular and somatosensory information to triggering postural responses to external body displacements may depend on the task and on the availability of sensory information in each system. To separate the contribution of vestibular and neck mechanisms to the stabilization of upright stance from that of lower body somatosensory mechanisms, responses to displacements of the head alone were compared with responses to displacements of the head and body, in both healthy subjects and in patients with profound bilateral vestibular loss. Head displacements were induced by translating two 1-kg weights suspended on either side of the head at the level of the mastoid bone, and body displacements were induced translating the support surface. Head displacements resulted in maximum forward and backward head accelerations similar to those resulting from body displacements, but were not accompanied by significant center of body mass, ankle, knee, or hip motions. We tested the effect of disrupting somatosensory information from the legs on postural responses to head or body displacements by sway-referencing the support surface. The subjects' eyes were closed during all testing to eliminate the effects of vision. Results showed that head displacements alone can trigger medium latency (48–84 ms) responses in the same leg and trunk muscles as body displacements. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that vestibular signals alone normally trigger directionally specific postural responses to support surface translations in standing humans because: (1) initial head accelerations resulting from body and head displacements were in opposite directions, but were associated with activation of the same leg and trunk postural muscles; (2) muscle responses to displacements of the head alone were only one third of the amplitude of responses to body displacements with equivalent maximum head accelerations; and (3) patients with profound bilateral vestibular loss showed patterns and latencies of leg and trunk muscle responses to body displacements similar to those of healthy subjects. Altering somatosensory information, by sway-referencing the support surface, increased the amplitude of ankle muscle activation to head displacements and reduced the amplitude of ankle muscle activation to body displacements, suggesting context-specific reweighting of vestibular and somatosensory inputs for posture. In contrast to responses to body displacements, responses to direct head displacements appear to depend upon a vestibulospinal trigger, since trunk and leg muscle responses to head displacements were absent in patients who had lost vestibular function as adults. Patients who lost vestibular function as infants, however, had near normal trunk and leg response to head displacements, suggesting a substitution of upper trunk and neck somatosensory inputs for missing vestibular inputs during development.