Little is known about the integration of neural mechanisms for balance and locomotion. Muscle synergies have been studied independently in standing balance and walking, but not compared. Here, we hypothesized that reactive balance and walking are mediated by a common set of lower-limb muscle synergies. In humans, we examined muscle activity during multidirectional support-surface perturbations during standing and walking, as well as unperturbed walking at two speeds. We show that most muscle synergies used in perturbations responses during standing were also used in perturbation responses during walking, suggesting common neural mechanisms for reactive balance across different contexts. We also show that most muscle synergies using in reactive balance were also used during unperturbed walking, suggesting that neural circuits mediating locomotion and reactive balance recruit a common set of muscle synergies to achieve task-level goals. Differences in muscle synergies across conditions reflected differences in the biomechanical demands of the tasks. For example, muscle synergies specific to walking perturbations may reflect biomechanical challenges associated with single limb stance, and muscle synergies used during sagittal balance recovery in standing but not walking were consistent with maintaining the different desired center of mass motions in standing vs. walking. Thus, muscle synergies specifying spatial organization of muscle activation patterns may define a repertoire of biomechanical subtasks available to different neural circuits governing walking and reactive balance and may be recruited based on task-level goals. Muscle synergy analysis may aid in dissociating deficits in spatial vs. temporal organization of muscle activity in motor deficits. Muscle synergy analysis may also provide a more generalizable assessment of motor function by identifying whether common modular mechanisms are impaired across the performance of multiple motor tasks.
Keywords: electromyography; locomotion; motor control; muscle synergy; posture.