Transient reversal of the stretch reflex in human arm muscles

F. Lacquaniti, N. A. Borghese, M. Carrozzo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Load perturbation responses can violate the law of reciprocal innervation between antagonist muscles under particular conditions. Thus flexor and extensor muscles of wrist and elbow joints are reflexly coactivated by the impact of a ball on the hand during a catching task. The aim of this study was to determine whether reflex coactivation can be preset within the central nervous system (CNS) or whether it is entirely due to the peripheral stimulus. To this end, we studied the behavior of stretch reflex responses of arm muscles evoked by torque motor perturbations applied before and during the catching task. Subjects were instructed to catch a ball dropped from 1.6 m. A torque motor delivered perturbations to the elbow joint, resulting in angular motion at both elbow and wrist joints because of their dynamic mechanical coupling. Two series of experiments were performed that differed in the perturbation waveform. In the first series, a single torque pulse could be randomly applied at different times during the task. The corresponding responses were recovered by subtracting the average of the unperturbed trials from the averages of perturbed trials. In the second series of experiments, a train of pseudorandom pulses was applied continuously during each trial. The time-varying impulse responses were computed at 20-ms intervals by cross-correlation methods. The pattern of the short-latency electromyographic responses evoked by either single pulses or pseudorandom perturbations obeyed the law of reciprocal innervation of antagonist muscles under basal conditions. However, the pattern of the responses evoked by the same perturbations around the time of ball impact on the hand consisted of a substantial coactivation of both stretched and shortening muscles. Reflex coactivation resulted from response patterns that differed at different joints. At the elbow, reflex coactivation resulted from a transient reversal of the direction of the short-latency responses of flexor muscles, with little changes of the responses of extensor muscles. At the wrist, instead, reflex coactivation resulted from simultaneous changes in the response waveform of both flexor and extensor muscles. The peripheral conditions associated with the applied perturbations were constant before the time of ball impact. Thus, because the changes of the stretch reflex responses began before that time, they must have been generated within the CNS. It is here hypothesized that the reversal of the reflex responses is centrally gated by switching from the pathways of reciprocal inhibition to those of coactivation of antagonist α-motoneurons. This gating is reminiscent of the gating of medium- and long-latency cutaneous reflexes during different phases of locomotion.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)939-954
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Neurophysiology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1991

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Neuroscience(all)


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