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Keywords:

  • cutaneous reflexes;
  • human;
  • passive walking;
  • phase-dependent modulation;
  • reversal of reflex balance

Abstract

Although cutaneous reflexes are known to be strongly modulated in a phase-dependent manner during walking in both human and cat, it is not clear whether the movement-related or the load-sensitive afferent feedback plays a more important role in regulating this modulation. To address this issue in humans, we investigated modulation of the cutaneous reflex in the tibialis anterior muscles (TA) of 17 subjects during passive walking with a load (0%, 33%, 66% unloading of body weight) and without a load (100% unloading). These walking tasks were performed passively with a robotic gait trainer system. Cutaneous reflexes in TA, elicited by electrical stimulation to the distal tibial (Tib) and superficial peroneal (SP) nerves, were recorded during 10 different phases of the walking cycle, and the middle latency responses (MLR, 70–120 ms) were analysed. During loaded walking, the magnitudes of the MLR induced by Tib nerve stimulation were strongly increased during the late stance-to-early swing phase irrespective of the amount of load (phase modulation), a phenomenon that also occurred without background electromyogram in the TA. Predominant suppression of the MLR following SP nerve stimulation at the early stance phase changed to facilitation at the late stance. By contrast, the MLR following either Tib or SP nerve stimulation was not at all modulated by the stepping phase during both unloaded walking (100% unloading) and standing. These results suggest that phasic changes in the load-related afferent information in concert with rhythmic lower limb movement play a key role in modulating cutaneous reflexes during walking.