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Neuroscience Letters





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Mere observation of objects in our surroundings can potentiate movement, a fact reflected by visually-primed activation of motor cortical networks. This mechanism holds potential value for reactive balance control where recovery actions of the arms or legs must be targeted to a new support base to avoid a fall. The present study was conducted to test if viewing a wall-mounted safety handle – the type of handle commonly used to regain balance – results in activation of motor cortical networks. We hypothesized that the hand area of the primary motor cortex would be facilitated shortly after visual access to a safety handle versus when no handle was visible. Here, we used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to measure corticospinal excitability in hand muscles directly following access to vision while participants performed a seated reach-grasp task. Vision was controlled using liquid crystal lenses and TMS pulses were time-locked to occur shortly after the goggles opened but prior to any cue for movement. Between trials the response environment was unpredictably altered to present either a handle or no handle (i.e. covered). Our results demonstrated a rapid motor facilitation in muscles of the right hand when participants viewed a handle versus trials where this handle was covered. This effect was selective both in terms of the muscles activated and the timing at which it emerged. The First Dorsal Interosseus and Opponens Pollicus muscles (synergists in closing the hand) were facilitated 120 ms after viewing the handle. Interestingly, this effect was absent at earlier (80 ms) and later (160 ms) points. Conversely, Abductor Digiti Minimi, which moves the little finger out from the rest of the hand, tended to diminish when viewing the handle. These findings suggest a rapid engagement of muscles suitable for grasping a handle based on vision. This is consistent with the concept of affordances where vision automatically translates viewed objects into appropriate motor terms. The fact that this affordance effect was present for a wall-mounted safety handle commonly used to regain balance has implications for automatically priming recovery actions with upper limbs suited to our surroundings, even before postural perturbation is detected.