To determine whether subjects with somatosensory loss show a compensatory increase in sensitivity to vestibular stimulation, we compared the amplitude of postural lean in response to four different intensities of bipolar galvanic stimulation in subjects with diabetic peripheral neuropathy (PNP) and age-matched control subjects. To determine whether healthy and neuropathic subjects show similar increases in sensitivity to galvanic vestibular stimulation when standing on unstable surfaces, both groups were exposed to galvanic stimulation while standing on a compliant foam surface. In these experiments, a 3-s pulse of galvanic current was administered to subjects standing with eyes closed and their heads turned toward one shoulder (anodal current on the forward mastoid). Anterior body tilt, as measured by center of foot pressure (COP), increased proportionately with increasing galvanic vestibular stimulation intensity for all subjects. Subjects with peripheral neuropathy showed larger forward CoP displacement in response to galvanic stimulation than Control subjects. The largest differences between neuropathy and control subjects were at the highest galvanic intensities, indicating an increased sensitivity to vestibular stimulation. Neuropathy subjects showed a larger increase in sensitivity to vestibular stimulation when standing on compliant foam than control subjects. The effect of galvanic stimulation was larger on the movement of the trunk segment in space than on the body's center of mass (CoM) angle, suggesting that the vestibular system acts to control trunk orientation rather than to control whole body posture. This study provides evidence for an increase in the sensitivity of the postural control system to vestibular stimulation when somatosensory information from the surface is disrupted either by peripheral neuropathy or by standing on an unstable surface. Simulations from a simple model of postural orientation incorporating feedback from the vestibular and somatosensory systems suggest that the increase in body lean in response to galvanic current in subjects with neuropathy could be reproduced only if central vestibular gain was increased when peripheral somatosensory gain was decreased. The larger effects of galvanic vestibular stimulation on the trunk than on the body's CoM suggest that the vestibular system may act to control postural orientation via control of the trunk in space.
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