Robot-induced perturbations of human walking reveal a selective generation of motor adaptation

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Science Robotics  24 May 2017:
Vol. 2, Issue 6, eaam7749
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aam7749

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The processes underlying the generation of motor adaptation in response to mechanical perturbations during human walking have been subject to debate. We used a robotic system to apply mechanical perturbations to step length and step height over consecutive gait cycles. Specifically, we studied perturbations affecting only step length, only step height, and step length and height in combination. Both step-length and step-height perturbations disrupt normal walking patterns, but step-length perturbations have a far greater impact on locomotor stability. We found a selective process of motor adaptation in that participants failed to adapt to step-height perturbations but strongly adapted to step-length perturbations, even when these adaptations increased metabolic cost. These results indicate that motor adaptation during human walking is primarily driven by locomotor stability, and only secondarily by energy expenditure and walking pattern preservation. These findings have substantial implications for the design of protocols for robot-assisted gait rehabilitation.

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