J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 66:447-455 doi:10.1136/jnnp.66.4.447
  • Paper

EMG responses to free fall in elderly subjects and akinetic rigid patients

  1. A R Bisdorffa,b,
  2. A M Bronsteinb,
  3. C Wolsleyb,
  4. M A Grestyb,
  5. A Daviesc,
  6. A Youngc
  1. aHôpital de la Ville, Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg, bMRC Human Movement and Balance Unit, National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London, UK, cUniversity Department of Geriatric Medicine, Royal Free Hospital, London UK
  1. Dr AM Bronstein, MRC Human Movement and Balance Unit, National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London, WC1N 3BG, UK.
  • Received 2 July 1998
  • Revised 12 October 1998
  • Accepted 16 October 1998


OBJECTIVES The EMG startle response to free fall was studied in young and old normal subjects, patients with absent vestibular function, and patients with akinetic-rigid syndromes. The aim was to detect any derangement in this early phase of the “landing response” in patient groups with a tendency to fall. In normal subjects the characteristics of a voluntary muscle contraction (tibilais anterior) was also compared when evoked by a non-startling sound and by the free fall startle.

METHODS Subjects lay supine on a couch which was unexpectedly released into free fall. Latencies of multiple surface EMG recordings to the onset of free fall, detected by a head mounted linear accelerometer, were measured.

Results and conclusions—(1) EMG responses in younger normal subjects occurred at: sternomastoid 54 ms, abdominals 69 ms, quadriceps 78 ms, deltoid 80 ms, and tibialis anterior 85 ms. This pattern of muscle activation, which is not a simple rostrocaudal progression, may be temporally/spatially organised in the startle brainstem centres. (2) Voluntary tibialis EMG activation was earlier and stronger in response to a startling stimulus (fall) than in response to a non- startling stimulus (sound). This suggests that the startle response can be regarded as a reticular mechanism enhancing motor responsiveness. (3) Elderly subjects showed similar activation sequences but delayed by about 20 ms. This delay is more than can be accounted for by slowing of central and peripheral motor conduction, therefore suggesting age dependent delay in central processing. (4) Avestibular patients had normal latencies indicating that the free fall startle can be elicited by non-vestibular inputs. (5) Latencies in patients with idiopathic Parkinson’s disease were normal whereas responses were earlier in patients with multiple system atrophy (MSA) and delayed or absent in patients with Steele-Richardson-Olszewski (SRO) syndrome. The findings in this patient group suggest: (1) lack of dopaminergic influence on the timing of the startle response, (2) concurrent cerebellar involvement in MSA may cause startle disinhibition, and (3) extensive reticular damage in SRO severely interferes with the response to free fall.


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