Evidence for reflex and perceptual vestibular contributions to postural control

Ann M. Bacsi, James G. Colebatch*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

73 Citations (Scopus)


Vestibular signals are known to have an important role in stance under specific conditions. Potentially these effects could be modulated by vestibular reflexes or by voluntary responses to perceived vestibular signals. Our preliminary aim was to confirm that vestibulospinal reflexes change in parallel with sway under different postural conditions, and then to determine whether any relationship was present between these reflexes and body sway within fixed postural conditions. Sixteen subjects (eight male, eight female) were tested in conditions assessing the effects of vision (eyes open or closed), support surface (firm or compliant), external support (with or without) and stance width (feet apart or together). Sway (centre of pressure) in the anteroposterior (AP) and mediolateral planes was measured using a force platform. A subgroup of 11 subjects (five male, six female) underwent testing to measure short (SL) and medium latency (ML) reflexes from soleus. Bipolar, transmastoid galvanic stimulation (1 mA, 200 ms) was administered while subjects stood in the most unstable of our conditions (eyes closed, compliant surface and feet together). In the final part, to assess possible perceptual contributions to body sway, short duration AP sway levels were measured and expressed in angular terms (sway in mrad, velocity in mrad s-1) in the 11 subjects for both our baseline (eyes open, firm surface and feet apart) and most unstable conditions. Average sway levels increased more than seven-fold between conditions and had significant, positive correlations with reported changes in mean vestibulospinal reflexes under similar conditions (overall r =0.75, P <0.001). However, the SL reflex for the subgroup of 11 subjects had a significant negative correlation (r =-0.71; P =0.014) with the degree of AP sway in the condition with maximum reliance on vestibular inputs (eyes closed, compliant surface, and feet together). Under baseline conditions, 5/125 (4%) of the short-term AP sway displacements were above the threshold previously reported for the detection of imposed sway. In the unstable condition, when sway was increased, 43/138 (31%) of the short-term AP sway movements were above the threshold for perception of imposed body sway based on vestibular signals. Our results confirm that vestibulospinal reflexes appear to be acutely facilitated as body sway increases. For the most unstable condition, when non-vestibular information was absent or attenuated, subjects with larger SL reflexes had less AP sway, suggesting that the SL reflex acted to attenuate sway. Under the same condition, short duration sway levels increased such that 31% were above the previously published threshold for detection using vestibular afferents. We conclude that both vestibular reflexes and perceptual signals appear to have a specific role in the maintenance of upright stance, under conditions in which other sources of postural information are attenuated or absent.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)22-28
Number of pages7
JournalExperimental Brain Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Galvanic
  • Human
  • Sway
  • Vestibulospinal


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