Journal of Neurophysiology

Human proprioceptive adaptations during states of height-induced fear and anxiety

Justin R. Davis, Brian C. Horslen, Kei Nishikawa, Katie Fukushima, Romeo Chua, J. Timothy Inglis, Mark G. Carpenter


Clinical and experimental research has demonstrated that the emotional experience of fear and anxiety impairs postural stability in humans. The current study investigated whether changes in fear and anxiety can also modulate spinal stretch reflexes and the gain of afferent inputs to the primary somatosensory cortex. To do so, two separate experiments were performed on two separate groups of participants while they stood under conditions of low and high postural threat. In experiment 1, the proprioceptive system was probed using phasic mechanical stimulation of the Achilles tendon while simultaneously recording the ensuing tendon reflexes in the soleus muscle and cortical-evoked potentials over the somatosensory cortex during low and high threat conditions. In experiment 2, phasic electrical stimulation of the tibial nerve was used to examine the effect of postural threat on somatosensory evoked potentials. Results from experiment 1 demonstrated that soleus tendon reflex excitability was facilitated during states of height-induced fear and anxiety while the magnitude of the tendon-tap-evoked cortical potential was not significantly different between threat conditions. Results from experiment 2 demonstrated that the amplitudes of somatosensory-evoked potentials were also unchanged between threat conditions. The results support the hypothesis that muscle spindle sensitivity in the triceps surae muscles may be facilitated when humans stand under conditions of elevated postural threat, although the presumed increase in spindle sensitivity does not result in higher afferent feedback gain at the level of the somatosensory cortex.

  • posturography
  • somatosensory-evoked potential
  • balance
  • emotion
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