November 23, 2020

Vision affects gait speed but not patterns of muscle activation during inclined walking – a virtual reality study

While walking, our locomotion is affected by and adapts to the environment based on vision-based and body-based (vestibular and proprioception) cues, all contributing to an "Internal Model of Gravity". During surface inclination transitions, we modulate gait to counteract gravitational forces by braking during downhill walking to avoid uncontrolled acceleration or by exerting effort to avoid deceleration while walking uphill. In this study, we investigated the role of vision in gait modulation during surface inclination transitions by using an immersive large-scale Virtual Reality (VR) system equipped with a self-paced treadmill and projected visual scenes that allowed us to modulate physical-visual inclinations congruence parametrically. Gait speed and leg muscle electromyography (EMG) were measured in 12 healthy young adults. In addition, the magnitude of subjective visual misperception of verticality was measured by the rod and frame test. During virtual (non-veridical) inclination transitions, vision modulated gait speed after transitions by (i) slowing down to counteract the excepted gravitational ‘boost’ in virtual downhill inclinations and by (ii) speeding up to counteract the expected gravity resistance in virtual uphill inclinations. These gait speed modulations were reflected in muscle activation intensity changes and associated with subjective visual verticality misperception. However, temporal patterns of muscle activation, which are significantly affected by real gravitational inclination transitions, were not affected by virtual (visual) inclination transitions. Our results delineate the contribution of vision to functional locomotion on uneven surfaces and may lead to enhanced rehabilitation strategies for neurological disorders affecting movement.

 bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience

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