Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 236, Issue 1, pp 187–194 | Cite as

Failures in adaptive locomotion: trial-and-error exploration to determine adequate foot elevation over obstacles

  • Michel J. H. Heijnen
  • Shirley Rietdyk
Research Article


Lifting the limb sufficiently to clear an obstacle seems like a straightforward task, yet trips are a common cause of falls across all ages. Examination of obstacle contacts in the lab revealed a progressive decrease in foot elevation with repeated exposures, ultimately resulting in failure (Heijnen et al. Exp Brain Res 23:219–231, 2012). The purpose of this study was to determine if the progressive decrease in foot elevation continued when knowledge of obstacle contact was removed. Twenty-one young adults (mean 20.0 ± 1.0 years; 8 males) crossed a 20 cm obstacle in a 12 m walkway for 150 trials. The obstacle was covertly lowered between the lead and trail limb crossing of the obstacle, which eliminated obstacle contact with the trail limb if the limb was too low. The average failure rate was 8%, substantially higher than the 1–2% observed for stationary, visible obstacles. Therefore, tactile information from obstacle contact was instrumental for guiding the trail limb; visual information and joint angle information were insufficient for most participants. Foot elevation change over successive trials varied across participants, and was categorized as (1) asymptotic decrease (N = 11, 52%), with foot elevation converging to obstacle height, (2) linear decrease (N = 7, 33%), and (3) stable (N = 3, 14%). The asymptotic and stable groups appeared to have reasonable knowledge of obstacle height; the linear group did not. The asymptotic behavior is consistent with participants exploring the region above the obstacle through trial-and-error to determine appropriate foot elevation.


Adaptive locomotion Failures Falls Young adults 


Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Health and Applied Human SciencesUniversity of North Carolina WilmingtonWilmingtonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Health and KinesiologyPurdue UniversityWest LafayetteUSA
  3. 3.Center for Aging and the Life CoursePurdue UniversityWest LafayetteUSA

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