Kirsty McDonald and co-authors publish a new paper in Interface that investigates whether maintaining energy use or stability is prioritized when energy and stability are compromised. It seems neither are, at least not acutely.
McDonald, K.A., Cusumano, J.P., Peeling, P., Rubenson, J. Multi-objective control in human walking: insights gained through simultaneous degradation of energetic and motor regulation systems. (2019). J. R. Soc. Interface. 16: doi: 10.1098/rsif.2019.0227. (PDF)
Minimization of metabolic energy is considered a fundamental principle of human locomotion, as demonstrated by an alignment between the preferred walking speed (PWS) and the speed incurring the lowest metabolic cost of transport. We aimed to (i) simultaneously disrupt metabolic cost and an alternate acute task requirement, namely speed error regulation, and (ii) assess whether the PWS could be explained on the basis of either optimality criterion in this new performance and energetic landscape. Healthy adults (N = 21) walked on an instrumented treadmill under normal conditions and, while negotiating a continuous gait perturbation, imposed leg-length asymmetry. Oxygen consumption, motion capture data and ground reaction forces were continuously recorded for each condition at speeds ranging from 0.6 to 1.8 m s−1, including the PWS. Both metabolic and speed regulation measures were disrupted by the perturbation (p < 0.05). Perturbed PWS selection did not exhibit energetic prioritization (although we find some indication of energy minimization after motor adaptation). Similarly, PWS selection did not support prioritization of speed error regulation, which was found to be independent of speed in both conditions. It appears that, during acute exposure to a mechanical gait perturbation of imposed leg-length asymmetry, humans minimize neither energetic cost nor speed regulation errors. Despite the abundance of evidence pointing to energy minimization during normal, steady-state gait, this may not extend acutely to perturbed gait. Understanding how the nervous system acutely controls gait perturbations requires further research that embraces multi-objective control paradigms.