Vestibular signals, which encode head movement in space as well as orientation relative to gravity, contribute to the ongoing muscle activity required to stand. The strength of this vestibular contribution changes with the presence and quality of sensory cues of balance. Here we investigate whether the vestibular drive for standing balance also depends on different sensory cues of gravity by examining vestibular-evoked muscle responses when independently varying load and gravity conditions. Standing subjects were braced by a backboard structure that limited whole-body sway to the sagittal plane while load and vestibular cues of gravity were manipulated by: (a) loading the body downward at 1.5 and 2 times body weight (i.e., load cues), and/or (b) exposing subjects to brief periods (20 s) of micro- (<0.05 g) and hyper-gravity (∼1.8 g) during parabolic flights (i.e., vestibular cues). A stochastic electrical vestibular stimulus (0-25 Hz) delivered during these tasks evoked a vestibular-error signal and corrective muscles responses that were used to assess the vestibular drive to standing balance. With additional load, the magnitude of the vestibular-evoked muscle responses progressively increased, however, when these responses were normalized by the ongoing muscle activity, they decreased and plateaued at 1.5 times body weight. This demonstrates that the increased muscle activity necessary to stand with additional load is accompanied a proportionally smaller increase in vestibular input. This reduction in the relative vestibular contribution to balance was also observed when we varied the vestibular cues of gravity, but only during an absence (<0.05 g) and not an excess (∼1.8 g) of gravity when compared to conditions with normal 1 g gravity signals and equivalent load signals. Despite these changes, vestibular-evoked responses were observed in all conditions, indicating that vestibular cues of balance contribute to upright standing even in the near absence of a vestibular signal of gravity (i.e., micro-gravity). Overall, these experiments provide evidence that both load and vestibular cues of gravity influence the vestibular signal processing for the control of standing balance.
- Balance control
- Electrical vestibular stimulation
- Vestibular system
- Vestibular-evoked responses