Proprioceptive information from the foot/ankle provides important information regarding body sway for balance control, especially in situations where visual information is degraded or absent. Given known increases in catastrophic injury due to falls with older age, understanding the neural basis of proprioceptive processing for balance control is particularly important for older adults. In the present study, we linked neural activity in response to stimulation of key foot proprioceptors (i.e., muscle spindles) with balance ability across the lifespan. Twenty young and 20 older human adults underwent proprioceptive mapping; foot tendon vibration was compared with vibration of a nearby bone in an fMRI environment to determine regions of the brain that were active in response to muscle spindle stimulation. Several body sway metrics were also calculated for the same participants on an eyes-closed balance task. Based on regression analyses, multiple clusters of voxels were identified showing a significant relationship between muscle spindle stimulation-induced neural activity and maximum center of pressure excursion in the anterior-posterior direction. In this case, increased activation was associated with greater balance performance in parietal, frontal, and insular cortical areas, as well as structures within the basal ganglia. These correlated regions were age- and foot-stimulation side-independent and largely localized to right-sided areas of the brain thought to be involved in monitoring stimulus-driven shifts of attention. These findings support the notion that, beyond fundamental peripheral reflex mechanisms, central processing of proprioceptive signals from the foot is critical for balance control.
Goble, D. J., Coxon, J. P., Van Impe, A., Geurts, M., Doumas, M. T., Wenderoth, N., & Swinnen, S. P. (2011). Brain activity during ankle proprioceptive stimulation predicts balance performance in young and older adults. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(45), 16344 - 16352. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4159-11.2011