Startle responses in Parkinson patients during human gait

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Falls frequently occur in patients with Parkinson's disease (Bloem et al. 2001). One potential source for such falls during walking might be caused by the reaction to loud noises. In normal subjects startle reactions are well integrated in the locomotor activity (Nieuwenhuijzen et al. 2000), but whether this is also achieved in Parkinson patients is unknown. Therefore, in the present study, the startle response during walking was studied in eight patients with Parkinson's disease and in eight healthy subjects. To examine how startle reactions are incorporated in an ongoing gait pattern of these patients, unexpected auditory stimuli were presented in six phases of the step cycle during walking on a treadmill. For both legs electromyographic activity was recorded from biceps femoris and tibialis anterior. In addition, we measured the stance and swing phases of both legs, along with the knee angles of both legs and the left ankle angle. In all subjects and all muscles, responses were detected. The pattern of the responses, latency, duration, and phase-dependent modulation was similar in both groups. However, the mean response amplitude was larger in patients due to a smaller habituation rate. No correlation was found between the degree of habituation and disease severity. Moreover, a decreased habituation was already observed in mildly affected patients, indicating that habituation of the startle response is a sensitive measure of Parkinson's disease. The results complement the earlier findings of reduced habituation of blink responses in Parkinson's disease. With respect to behavioral changes in healthy subjects we observed that startle stimuli induced a shortening of the step cycle and a decrease in range of motion. In the patient group, less shortening of the subsequent step cycle and no decrease in range of motion of the knee and ankle was seen. It is argued that the observed changes might contribute to the high incidence of falls in patients with Parkinson's disease.

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