Intact cats and humans respond to support surface perturbations with broadly tuned, directionally sensitive muscle activation. These muscle responses are further sensitive to initial stance widths (distance between feet) and perturbation velocity. The sensory origins driving these responses are not known, and conflicting hypotheses are prevalent in the literature. We hypothesize that the direction-, stance-width-, and velocity-sensitive muscle response during support surface perturbations is driven largely by rapid autogenic proprioceptive pathways. The primary objective of this study was to obtain direct evidence for our hypothesis by establishing that muscle spindle receptors in the intact limb can provide appropriate information to drive the muscle response to whole body postural perturbations. Our second objective was to determine if spindle recordings from the intact limb generate the heightened sensitivity to small perturbations that has been reported in isolated muscle experiments. Maintenance of this heightened sensitivity would indicate that muscle spindles are highly proficient at detecting even small disturbances, suggesting they can provide efficient feedback about changing postural conditions. We performed intraaxonal recordings from muscle spindles in anesthetized cats during horizontal, hindlimb perturbations. We indeed found that muscle spindle afferents in the intact limb generate broadly tuned but directionally sensitive activation patterns. These afferents were also sensitive to initial stance widths and perturbation velocities. Finally, we found that afferents in the intact limb have heightened sensitivity to small perturbations. We onclude that muscle spindle afferents provide an array of important information about biomechanics and perturbation characteristics highlighting their potential importance in generating appropriate muscular response during a postural disturbance.
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