Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 157, Issue 3, pp 275–285 | Cite as

Postural stabilization from fingertip contact: I. Variations in sway attenuation, perceived stability and contact forces with aging

  • François TremblayEmail author
  • Annie-Claude Mireault
  • Liam Dessureault
  • Hélène Manning
  • Heidi Sveistrup
Research Article


In this study, we compared the ability of young (n=10, 19–32 years) and older subjects (n=35, 60–86 years) to use fingertip contact as a balance aid during quiet stance under various conditions to determine whether aging would influence contact strategies. Experimental trials (duration, 60 s) included two visual conditions (vision; no vision), three fingertip contact conditions (no touch; smooth touch; rough touch) and two support surface conditions (firm; foam). In trials with contact, participants were required to maintain a light contact with their right index fingertip on an instrumented touch-plate. Subjects were not constrained to exert minimal contact force, although they were aware that the touch-plate was not designed for physical support. From displacements of the centre of foot pressure (COP), mean sway amplitude (MSA) was computed in the anterior-posterior (COPAP) and medio-lateral (COPML) directions. Subjective estimates of stability were also obtained by asking participants to rate perceived stability on a visual analog scale in each condition. Mean normal force (F N ) and mean resultant tangential force (FTAN) were computed from contact force data applied on the touch plate. In both age groups, touch conditions had a substantial effect on MSA in the AP direction under both support surface conditions, with reductions averaging between 40–55% when touch was allowed. Reductions in the ML direction, though less important (8–12% on average), were nevertheless highly significant, especially in the older subjects when standing on the foam. In the two groups, vision and texture had only marginal impact on MSA computed on both support surfaces. Contrasting with sway measurements, stability ratings were highly influenced by visual conditions in both age groups. Only in conditions of deficient support (foam surface) and absent vision did the perceived effect of touch exceed that of vision. Age had a major impact, however, on contact forces deployed during trials with touch. While individuals in the young group typically produced forces of <1 N (mean F N , 0.32±0.15 N) to achieve postural stabilization, older subjects tended to use higher, though not too excessive, contact forces (mean F N , 1.21±0.75 N) under the same conditions. From these findings, we conclude that the ability to use contact cues from the fingertip as a source of sensory information to improve postural stability is largely preserved in healthy older adults. The increase in contact force deployed by older individuals to achieve postural stabilization is interpreted as a compensatory strategy to help overcome age-related loss in tactile sensation, an issue that will be further addressed in a companion paper.


Light touch Balance Contact force Aging 



The authors wish to thank all participants for their time and patience during testing. A special thanks to Club “60” Vanier for their help with the recruitment of participants. Parts of this work served for the partial fulfillment of the MA in Human Kinetics of A.C. Mireault. A.C. Mireault was supported by an Ontario Graduate Studies scholarship. H. Manning and L. Dessureault participated in this project through undergraduate Student Research Awards from the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada. This project was supported by grant from NSERC (Canada) to F. Tremblay. H. Sveistrup is supported by NSERC, Canada, and is a Career Scientist of the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care, Ontario.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • François Tremblay
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Annie-Claude Mireault
    • 1
  • Liam Dessureault
    • 1
  • Hélène Manning
    • 1
  • Heidi Sveistrup
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Rehabilitation Sciences, Faculty of Health SciencesUniversity of OttawaOttawaCanada
  2. 2.Faculty of Health SciencesUniversity of OttawaOttawaCanada

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