Keep your head down: Maintaining gait stability in challenging conditions.
Thomas, N. D. A., Gardiner, J. D., Crompton, R. H., & Lawson, R. (2020c).
Background: Peripheral vision often deteriorates with age, disrupting our ability to maintain normal locomotion. Laboratory based studies have shown that lower visual field loss, in particular, is associated with changes in gaze and gait behaviour whilst walking and this, in turn, increases the risk of falling in the elderly. Separately, gaze and gait behaviours change and fall risk increases when walking over complex surfaces. It seems probable, but has not yet been established, that these challenges to stability interact.Research Question: How does loss of the lower visual field affect gaze and gait behaviour whilst walking on a variety of complex surfaces outside of the laboratory? Specifically, is there a synergistic interaction between the effects on behaviour of blocking the lower visual field and increased surface complexity? Methods: We compared how full vision versus simulated lower visual field loss affected a diverse range of behavioural measures (head pitch angle, eye angle, muscle coactivation, gait speed and walking smoothness as measured by harmonic ratios) in young participants. Participants walked over a range of surfaces of different complexity, including pavements, grass, steps and pebbles. Results: In both full vision and blocked lower visual field conditions, surface complexity influenced gaze and gait behaviour. For example, more complex surfaces were shown to be associated with lowered head pitch angles, increased leg muscle coactivation, reduced gait speed and decreased walking smoothness. Relative to full vision, blocking the lower visual field caused a lowering of head pitch, especially for more complex surfaces. However, crucially, muscle coactivation, gait speed and walking smoothness did not show a significant change between full vision and blocked lower visual field conditions. Finally, head pitch angle, muscle coactivation, gait speed and walking smoothness were all correlated highly with each other. Significance: Our study showed that blocking the lower visual field did not significantly change muscle coactivation, gait speed or walking smoothness. This suggests that young people cope well when walking with a blocked lower visual field, making minimal behavioural changes. Surface complexity had a greater effect on gaze and gait behaviour than blocking the lower visual field. Finally, head pitch angle was the only measure that showed a significant synergistic interaction between surface complexity and blocking the lower visual field. Together our results indicate that, first, a range of changes occur across the body when people walk over more complex surfaces and, second, that a relatively simple behavioural change (to gaze) suffices to maintain normal gait when the lower visual field is blocked, even in more challenging environments. Future research should assess whether young people cope as effectively when several impairments are simulated, representative of the comorbidities found with age.
Human Movement Science, 73, 102676.