The scientific paradox of crossing Abbey Road. Image credit: Tisserand et al. 2018

The scientific paradox of crossing Abbey Road

If our ability to stand still depends on the brain preventing movements that would otherwise make us fall, how do we ever start moving?

Crossing Abbey Road is something of a paradox in neuroscientific terms. As you stand waiting to cross, tiny movements of your body — such as those due to breathing — cause you to sway by small amounts. To prevent you from falling over, your brain makes active corrections to your posture. These posture-correcting mechanisms oppose movements such as sway and keep you standing upright. But what happens when you want to cross the road?

To get you moving, your brain has two options. It could temporarily suppress the posture-correcting mechanisms. Or it could reconfigure them so that they work in a different way. The posture-correcting mechanisms rely upon sensory input from various sources. These include the vestibular system of the inner ear. The vestibular system tells the brain about the position and movement of the head in space and relative to gravity. Monitoring vestibular system activity as a person starts to move should thus reveal what is happening to the posture-correcting mechanisms.

Tisserand et al. asked healthy volunteers to transition between standing still and walking, or to shift their weight from one foot to the other. At the same time, small non-painful electric currents were applied to the bones behind the volunteers’ ears. These currents induced small changes in vestibular system activity. Sensors in the floor measured the forces the volunteers generated while standing or walking, thereby revealing how they adjusted their balance. The results showed that the brain suppresses its posture-correcting mechanisms before people start or stop moving.

These findings have implications for robotics. They could make it easier to program robots to show smooth transitions into and out of movement. The findings are also relevant to movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. One common symptom of this disorder is freezing of gait, in which patients suddenly feel as though their feet are glued to the ground. Understanding how the brain controls movement transitions may reveal how such symptoms arise.

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