Doubt about the role of stretch reflexes in movement and posture control has remained in part because the questions of reflex “usefulness” and the postural “set” have not been adequately considered in the design of experimental paradigms. The intent of this study was to discover the stabilizing role of stretch reflexes acting upon the ankle musculature while human subjects performed stance tasks requiring several different postural “sets”. Task specific differences of reflex function were investigated by experiments in which the role of stretch reflexes to stabilize sway during stance could be altered to be useful, of no use, or inappropriate.
Because the system has available a number of alternate inputs to posture (e.g., vestibular and visual), stretch reflex responses were in themselves not necessary to prevent a loss of balance. Nevertheless, 5 out of 12 subjects in this study used long-latency (120 msec) stretch reflexes to help reduce postural sway. Following an unexpected change in the usefulness of stretch reflexes, the 5 subjects progressively altered reflex gain during the succeeding 3–5 trials. Adaptive changes in gain were always in the sense to reduce sway, and therefore could be attenuating or facilitating the reflex response. Comparing subjects using the reflex with those not doing so, stretch reflex control resulted in less swaying when the task conditions were unchanging. However, the 5 subjects using reflex controls oftentimes swayed more during the first 3–5 trials after a change, when inappropriate responses were elicited.
Four patients with clinically diagnosed cerebellar deficits were studied briefly. Among the stance tasks, their performance was similar to normal in some and significantly poorer in others. Their most significant deficit appeared to be the inability to adapt long-latency reflex gain following changes in the stance task.
The study concludes with a discussion of the role of stretch reflexes within a hierarchy of controls ranging from muscle stiffness up to centrally initiated responses.
Human posture controlLong-latency stretch reflexAdaptationReflex compensation