Standing balance is significantly influenced by postural threat. While this effect has been well established, the underlying mechanisms of the effect are less understood. The involvement of the vestibular system is under current debate, and recent studies that investigated the effects of height-induced postural threat on vestibular-evoked responses provide conflicting results based on kinetic (Horslen BC, Dakin CJ, Inglis JT, Blouin JS, Carpenter MG. J Physiol 592: 3671–3685, 2014) and kinematic (Osler CJ, Tersteeg MC, Reynolds RF, Loram ID. Eur J Neurosci 38: 3239–3247, 2013) data. We examined the effect of threat of perturbation, a different form of postural threat, on coupling (cross-correlation, coherence, and gain) of the vestibulo-muscular relationship in 25 participants who maintained standing balance. In the “No-Threat” conditions, participants stood quietly on a stable surface. In the “Threat” condition, participants' balance was threatened with unpredictable mediolateral support surface tilts. Quiet standing immediately before the surface tilts was compared to an equivalent time from the No-Threat conditions. Surface EMG was recorded from bilateral trunk, hip, and leg muscles. Hip and leg muscles exhibited significant increases in peak cross-correlation amplitudes, coherence, and gain (1.23–2.66×) in the Threat condition compared with No-Threat conditions, and significant correlations were observed between threat-related changes in physiological arousal and medium-latency peak cross-correlation amplitude in medial gastrocnemius (r = 0.408) muscles. These findings show a clear threat effect on vestibular-evoked responses in muscles in the lower body, with less robust effects of threat on trunk muscles. Combined with previous work, the present results can provide insight into observed changes during balance control in threatening situations.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY This is the first study to show increases in vestibular-evoked responses of the lower body muscles under conditions of increased threat of postural perturbation. While robust findings were observed in hip and leg muscles, less consistent results were found in muscles of the trunk. The present findings provide further support in the ongoing debate for arguments that vestibular-evoked balance responses are influenced by fear and anxiety and explain previous threat-related changes in balance.
- postural threat
- vestibular-evoked response
- electrical vestibular stimulation
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