Slowing Down to Preserve Balance in the Presence of Optical Flow Perturbations
Andrew D. Shelton, Ellora M. Mctaggart, Jessica L. Allen, Vicki S. Mercer, Jason R. Franz
Background: The use of sensory and mechanical perturbations applied during walking has grown in popularity due to their ability to elicit instability relevant to falls. However, the vast majority of perturbation studies on walking balance are performed on a treadmill at a fixed speed. Research question: The aim of the study was to quantify the effects of mediolateral optical flow perturbations on walking speed and balance outcomes in young adults walking with fixed-speed and self-paced treadmill controllers. Methods: Fifteen healthy young adults (8 female, age: 23.1±4.6 yrs) completed four five-minute randomized walking trials in a speed-matched virtual reality hallway. In two of the trials, we added continuous mediolateral optical flow perturbations to the virtual hallway. Trials with and without optical flow perturbations were performed with either a fixed-speed or self-paced treadmill controller. We measured walking speed, balance outcomes (step width, margin of stability, local dynamic instability) and gait variability (step width variability and margin of stability variability). Results: We found significant increases in step width (+20%, p=0.004) and local dynamic instability (+11%, p = 0.008) of participants while responding to optical flow perturbations at a fixed treadmill speed. We found no significant differences in these outcome measures when perturbations were applied on a self-paced treadmill. Instead, participants walked 5.7% slower between the self-paced treadmill controller conditions when responding to optical flow perturbations (1.48±0.13 m/s vs. 1.57±0.16 m/s, p=0.005). Significance: Our findings suggest that during walking, when presented with a balance challenge, an individual will instinctively reduce their walking speed in order to better preserve stability. However, comparisons to prior literature suggest that this response may depend on environmental and/or perturbation context. Cumulatively, our results point to opportunities for leveraging self-paced treadmill controllers as a more ecologically-relevant option in balance research with potential clinical applications in diagnostics and rehabilitation.