Our ongoing work combining virtual reality and optical flow perturbations to investigate mechanisms governing walking balance control has led to a recently accepted publication in the journal IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems & Rehabilitation Engineering.
Franz JR, Francis CA, Allen MS, Thelen DG (In Press). Visuomotor entrainment and the frequency-dependent response of walking balance to perturbations.
Abstract. Visuomotor entrainment, or the synchronization of motor responses to visual stimuli, is a naturally emergent phenomenon in human standing. Our purpose was to investigate the prevalence and resolution of visuomotor entrainment in walking and the frequency-dependent response of walking balance to perturbations. We used a virtual reality environment to manipulate optical flow in ten healthy young adults during treadmill walking. A motion capture system recorded trunk, sacrum, and heel marker trajectories during a series of 3-min conditions in which we perturbed a virtual hallway mediolaterally with systematic changes in the driving frequencies of perceived motion. We quantified visuomotor entrainment using spectral analyses and changes in balance control using trunk sway, gait variability, and detrended fluctuation analyses (DFA). ML kinematics were highly sensitive to visual perturbations, and instinctively synchronized (i.e., entrained) to a broad range of driving frequencies of perceived ML motion. However, the influence of visual perturbations on metrics of walking balance was frequency-dependent and governed by their proximity to stride frequency. Specifically, we found that a driving frequency nearest to subjects’ average stride frequency uniquely compromised trunk sway, gait variability, and step-to-step correlations. We conclude that visuomotor entrainment is a robust and naturally emerging phenomenon during human walking, involving coordinated and frequency-dependent adjustments in trunk sway and foot placement to maintain balance at the whole-body level. These findings provide mechanistic insight into how the visuomotor control of walking balance is disrupted by visual perturbations and important reference values for the emergence of balance deficits due to age, injury, or disease.