It is generally accepted that human bipedal upright stance is achieved by feedback mechanisms that generate an appropriate corrective torque based on body-sway motion detected primarily by visual, vestibular, and proprioceptive sensory systems. Because orientation information from the various senses is not always available (eyes closed) or accurate (compliant support surface), the postural control system must somehow adjust to maintain stance in a wide variety of environmental conditions. This is the sensorimotor integration problem that we investigated by evoking anterior-posterior (AP) body sway using pseudorandom rotation of the visual surround and/or support surface (amplitudes 0.5-8°) in both normal subjects and subjects with severe bilateral vestibular loss (VL). AP rotation of body center-of-mass (COM) was measured in response to six conditions offering different combinations of available sensory information. Stimulus-response data were analyzed using spectral analysis to compute transfer functions and coherence functions over a frequency range from 0.017 to 2.23 Hz. Stimulus-response data were quite linear for any given condition and amplitude. However, overall behavior in normal subjects was nonlinear because gain decreased and phase functions sometimes changed with increasing stimulus amplitude. "Sensory channel reweighting" could account for this nonlinear behavior with subjects showing increasing reliance on vestibular cues as stimulus amplitudes increased. VL subjects could not perform this reweighting, and their stimulus-response behavior remained quite linear. Transfer function curve fits based on a simple feedback control model provided estimates of postural stiffness, damping, and feedback time delay. There were only small changes in these parameters with increasing visual stimulus amplitude. However, stiffness increased as much as 60% with increasing support surface amplitude. To maintain postural stability and avoid resonant behavior, an increase in stiffness should be accompanied by a corresponding increase in damping. Increased damping was achieved primarily by decreasing the apparent time delay of feedback control rather than by changing the damping coefficient (i.e., corrective torque related to body-sway velocity). In normal subjects, stiffness and damping were highly correlated with body mass and moment of inertia, with stiffness always about 1/3 larger than necessary to resist the destabilizing torque due to gravity. The stiffness parameter in some VL subjects was larger compared with normal subjects, suggesting that they may use increased stiffness to help compensate for their loss. Overall results show that the simple act of standing quietly depends on a remarkably complex sensorimotor control system.
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