Spinal mechanisms may provide a combination of intermittent and continuous control of human posture: predictions from a biologically based neuromusculoskeletal model

PLoS Comput Biol. 2014 Nov 13;10(11):e1003944. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003944. eCollection 2014 Nov.


Several models have been employed to study human postural control during upright quiet stance. Most have adopted an inverted pendulum approximation to the standing human and theoretical models to account for the neural feedback necessary to keep balance. The present study adds to the previous efforts in focusing more closely on modelling the physiological mechanisms of important elements associated with the control of human posture. This paper studies neuromuscular mechanisms behind upright stance control by means of a biologically based large-scale neuromusculoskeletal (NMS) model. It encompasses: i) conductance-based spinal neuron models (motor neurons and interneurons); ii) muscle proprioceptor models (spindle and Golgi tendon organ) providing sensory afferent feedback; iii) Hill-type muscle models of the leg plantar and dorsiflexors; and iv) an inverted pendulum model for the body biomechanics during upright stance. The motor neuron pools are driven by stochastic spike trains. Simulation results showed that the neuromechanical outputs generated by the NMS model resemble experimental data from subjects standing on a stable surface. Interesting findings were that: i) an intermittent pattern of muscle activation emerged from this posture control model for two of the leg muscles (Medial and Lateral Gastrocnemius); and ii) the Soleus muscle was mostly activated in a continuous manner. These results suggest that the spinal cord anatomy and neurophysiology (e.g., motor unit types, synaptic connectivities, ordered recruitment), along with the modulation of afferent activity, may account for the mixture of intermittent and continuous control that has been a subject of debate in recent studies on postural control. Another finding was the occurrence of the so-called "paradoxical" behaviour of muscle fibre lengths as a function of postural sway. The simulations confirmed previous conjectures that reciprocal inhibition is possibly contributing to this effect, but on the other hand showed that this effect may arise without any anticipatory neural control mechanism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Computational Biology
  • Feedback, Physiological / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological*
  • Motor Neurons
  • Musculoskeletal Physiological Phenomena*
  • Posture / physiology*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Spinal Cord / physiology*
  • Torque
  • Young Adult

Associated data

  • figshare/10.6084/M9.FIGSHARE.1027609
  • figshare/10.6084/M9.FIGSHARE.1029084
  • figshare/10.6084/M9.FIGSHARE.1029085

Grant support

This study was funded by Grants from Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP - www.fapesp.br) and CNPq (Brazilian NSF - www.cnpq.br). LAE received a PhD scholarship (Grant no. 2009/15802-0) and a Post-Doctoral Grant (Grant no. 2013/1043301) from FAPESP. RNW holds a PhD scholarship from FAPESP (Grant no. 2011/21103-7). AFK was funded by a Grant from CNPq (Grant no. 303313/2011-0). The funders had no role in study design, data collections and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.