Referent control of the orientation of posture and movement in the gravitational field

Aditi A. Mullick, Nicolas A. Turpin, Szu Chen Hsu, Sandeep K. Subramanian, Anatol G. Feldman, Mindy F. Levin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


This study addresses the question of how posture and movement are oriented with respect to the direction of gravity. It is suggested that neural control levels coordinate spatial thresholds at which multiple muscles begin to be activated to specify a referent body orientation (RO) at which muscle activity is minimized. Under the influence of gravity, the body is deflected from the RO to an actual orientation (AO) until the emerging muscle activity and forces begin to balance gravitational forces and maintain body stability. We assumed that (1) during quiet standing on differently tilted surfaces, the same RO and thus AO can be maintained by adjusting activation thresholds of ankle muscles according to the surface tilt angle; (2) intentional forward body leaning results from monotonic ramp-and-hold shifts in the RO; (3) rhythmic oscillation of the RO about the ankle joints during standing results in body swaying. At certain sway phases, the AO and RO may transiently overlap, resulting in minima in the activity of multiple muscles across the body. EMG kinematic patterns of the 3 tasks were recorded and explained based on the RO concept that implies that these patterns emerge due to referent control without being pre-programmed. We also confirmed the predicted occurrence of minima in the activity of multiple muscles at specific body configurations during swaying. Results re-affirm previous rejections of model-based computational theories of motor control. The role of different descending systems in the referent control of posture and movement in the gravitational field is considered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)381-398
Number of pages18
JournalExperimental Brain Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2018


  • Behavioural neuroscience
  • Control variables
  • Corticospinal
  • Descending systems
  • Equilibrium-point
  • Vestibular

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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