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The present study explored how motor cortical activity was influenced by visual perception of complex environments that either afforded or obstructed arm and leg reactions in young, healthy adults. Most importantly, we focused on compensatory balance reactions where the arms were required to regain stability following unexpected postural perturbation. Our first question was if motor cortical activity from the hand area automatically corresponds to the visual environment. Affordance-based priming of the motor system was assessed using single-pulse Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to determine if visual access to a wall-mounted support handle influenced corticospinal excitability. We evaluated if hand actions were automatically facilitated and/or suppressed by viewing an available handle within graspable range. Our second question was if the requirement for rapid movement to recover balance played a role in modulating any affordance effect in the hands. The goal was to disentangle motor demands related to postural threat from the impact of observation alone. For balance trials, a custom-built, lean and release apparatus was used to impose temporally unpredictable postural perturbations. In all balance trials, perturbations were of sufficient magnitude to evoke a compensatory change-in-support response; therefore, any recovery action needed to carefully take into account the affordances and constraints of the perceived environment to prevent a fall. Consistent with our first hypothesis, activity in an intrinsic hand muscle was increased when participants passively viewed a wall-mounted safety handle, in both seated and standing contexts. Contrary to our second hypothesis, this visual priming was absent when perturbations were imposed and the handle was needed to regain balance. Our results reveal that motor set is influenced by simply viewing objects that afford a grasp. We suggest that such preparation may provide an advantage when generating balance recovery actions that require quickly grasping a supportive handle. This priming effect likely competes with other task-dependent influences that regulate cortical motor output. Future studies should expand from limitations inherent with single-pulse TMS alone, to determine if vision of our surrounding world influences motor set in other contexts (e.g., intensified postural threat) and investigate if this priming corresponds to overt behavior.
Bolton, David A.E., et al. "Motor Preparation for Compensatory Reach-to-Grasp Responses When Viewing a Wall-Mounted Safety Handle." Cortex, 2019, vol. 117, pp. 135 - 146. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2019.03.001