Postural threat differentially affects the feedforward and feedback components of the vestibular-evoked balance response

Callum J Osler, M C A Tersteeg, Raymond F Reynolds, Ian D Loram

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16 Citations (Scopus)
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Circumstances may render the consequence of falling quite severe, thus maximising the motivation to control postural sway. This commonly occurs when exposed to height and may result from the interaction of many factors, including fear, arousal, sensory information and perception. Here, we examined human vestibular-evoked balance responses during exposure to a highly threatening postural context. Nine subjects stood with eyes closed on a narrow walkway elevated 3.85 m above ground level. This evoked an altered psycho-physiological state, demonstrated by a twofold increase in skin conductance. Balance responses were then evoked by galvanic vestibular stimulation. The sway response, which comprised a whole-body lean in the direction of the edge of the walkway, was significantly and substantially attenuated after ~800 ms. This demonstrates that a strong reason to modify the balance control strategy was created and subjects were highly motivated to minimise sway. Despite this, the initial response remained unchanged. This suggests little effect on the feedforward settings of the nervous system responsible for coupling pure vestibular input to functional motor output. The much stronger, later effect can be attributed to an integration of balance-relevant sensory feedback once the body was in motion. These results demonstrate that the feedforward and feedback components of a vestibular-evoked balance response are differently affected by postural threat. Although a fear of falling has previously been linked with instability and even falling itself, our findings suggest that this relationship is not attributable to changes in the feedforward vestibular control of balance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3239-3247
JournalEuropean Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 18 Aug 2013

Bibliographical note

© 2013 Federation of European Neuroscience Societies and John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


  • fear;human balance;reflex;sway;vestibular stimulation


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