Sensorimotor adaptations to microgravity in humans

J Exp Biol. 2001 Sep;204(Pt 18):3217-24. doi: 10.1242/jeb.204.18.3217.


Motor function is altered by microgravity, but little detail is available as to what these changes are and how changes in the individual components of the sensorimotor system affect the control of movement. Further, there is little information on whether the changes in motor performance reflect immediate or chronic adaptations to changing gravitational environments. To determine the effects of microgravity on the neural control properties of selected motor pools, four male astronauts from the NASA STS-78 mission performed motor tasks requiring the maintenance of either ankle dorsiflexor or plantarflexor torque. Torques of 10 or 50% of a maximal voluntary contraction (MVC) were requested of the subjects during 10 degrees peak-to-peak sinusoidal movements at 0.5 Hz. When 10% MVC of the plantarflexors was requested, the actual torques generated in-flight were similar to pre-flight values. Post-flight torques were higher than pre- and in-flight torques. The actual torques when 50% MVC was requested were higher in- and post-flight than pre-flight. Soleus (Sol) electromyographic (EMG) amplitudes during plantarflexion were higher in-flight than pre- or post-flight for both the 10 and 50% MVC tasks. No differences in medial gastrocnemius (MG) EMG amplitudes were observed for either the 10 or 50% MVC tasks. The EMG amplitudes of the tibialis anterior (TA), an antagonist to plantarflexion, were higher in- and post-flight than pre-flight for the 50% MVC task. During the dorsiflexion tasks, the torques generated in both the 10 and 50% MVC tasks did not differ pre-, in- and post-flight. TA EMG amplitudes were significantly higher in- than pre-flight for both the 10 or 50% MVC tasks, and remained elevated post-flight for the 50% MVC test. Both the Sol and MG EMG amplitudes were significantly higher in-flight than either pre- or post-flight for both the 10 and 50% MVC tests. These data suggest that the most consistent response to space flight was an elevation in the level of contractions of agonists and antagonists when attempting to maintain constant torques at a given level of MVC. Also, the chronic levels of EMG activity in selected ankle flexor and extensor muscles during space flight and during routine activities on Earth were recorded. Compared with pre- and post-flight values, there was a marked increase in the total EMG activity of the TA and the Sol and no change in the MG EMG activity in-flight. These data indicate that space flight, as occurs on shuttle missions, is a model of elevated activation of both flexor and extensor muscles, probably reflecting the effects of programmed work schedules in flight rather than a direct effect of microgravity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Astronauts
  • Electromyography
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Muscle Contraction
  • Psychomotor Performance*
  • Space Flight
  • Torque
  • United States
  • United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • Weightlessness*