Last updated

A reflex, or reflex action, is an involuntary and nearly instantaneous movement in response to a stimulus. [1] [2] A reflex is made possible by neural pathways called reflex arcs which can act on an impulse before that impulse reaches the brain. The reflex is then an automatic response to a stimulus that does not receive or need conscious thought. [3]

Stimulus (physiology) in physiology, a detectable change in the internal or external environment

In physiology, a stimulus is a detectable change in the physical or chemical structure of an organism's internal or external environment. The ability of an organism or organ to respond to external stimuli is called sensitivity. When a stimulus is applied to a sensory receptor, it normally elicits or influences a reflex via stimulus transduction. These sensory receptors can receive information from outside the body, as in touch receptors found in the skin or light receptors in the eye, as well as from inside the body, as in chemoreceptors and mechanoreceptors. An internal stimulus is often the first component of a homeostatic control system. External stimuli are capable of producing systemic responses throughout the body, as in the fight-or-flight response. In order for a stimulus to be detected with high probability, its level must exceed the absolute threshold; if a signal does reach threshold, the information is transmitted to the central nervous system (CNS), where it is integrated and a decision on how to react is made. Although stimuli commonly cause the body to respond, it is the CNS that finally determines whether a signal causes a reaction or not.

Neural pathway

A neural pathway is the connection formed by axons that project from neurons to make synapses onto neurons in another location, to enable a signal to be sent from one region of the nervous system to another. Neurons are connected by a single axon, or by a bundle of axons known as a nerve tract, or fasciculus. Shorter neural pathways are found within grey matter in the brain, whereas longer projections, made up of myelinated axons, constitute white matter.

Reflex arc

A reflex arc is a neural pathway that controls a reflex. In vertebrates, most sensory neurons do not pass directly into the brain, but synapse in the spinal cord. This allows for faster reflex actions to occur by activating spinal motor neurons without the delay of routing signals through the brain. However, the brain will receive the sensory input while the reflex is being carried out and the analysis of the signal takes place after the reflex action.


Human reflexes

Myotatic reflexes

The myotatic reflexes (also known as deep tendon reflexes), provide information on the integrity of the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system. Generally, decreased reflexes indicate a peripheral problem, and lively or exaggerated reflexes a central one.[ citation needed ] A stretch reflex is the contraction of a muscle in response to its lengthwise stretch. [3]

The stretch reflex is a muscle contraction in response to stretching within the muscle. It is a monosynaptic reflex which provides automatic regulation of skeletal muscle length.

Central nervous system main information-processing organs of the nervous system, consisting of the brain, spinal cord, and meninges

The central nervous system (CNS) is the part of the nervous system consisting of the brain and spinal cord. The CNS is so named because it integrates the received information and coordinates and influences the activity of all parts of the bodies of bilaterally symmetric animals—that is, all multicellular animals except sponges and radially symmetric animals such as jellyfish—and it contains the majority of the nervous system. Many consider the retina and the optic nerve, as well as the olfactory nerves and olfactory epithelium as parts of the CNS, synapsing directly on brain tissue without intermediate ganglia. As such, the olfactory epithelium is the only central nervous tissue in direct contact with the environment, which opens up for therapeutic treatments. The CNS is contained within the dorsal body cavity, with the brain housed in the cranial cavity and the spinal cord in the spinal canal. In vertebrates, the brain is protected by the skull, while the spinal cord is protected by the vertebrae. The brain and spinal cord are both enclosed in the meninges. Within the CNS, the interneuronal space is filled with a large amount of supporting non-nervous cells called neuroglial cells.

Peripheral nervous system part of the nervous system

The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is one of two components that make up the nervous system of bilateral animals, with the other part being the central nervous system (CNS). The PNS consists of the nerves and ganglia outside the brain and spinal cord. The main function of the PNS is to connect the CNS to the limbs and organs, essentially serving as a relay between the brain and spinal cord and the rest of the body. Unlike the CNS, the PNS is not protected by the vertebral column and skull, or by the blood–brain barrier, which leaves it exposed to toxins and mechanical injuries.

Biceps reflex is a reflex test that examines the function of the C5 reflex arc and the C6 reflex arc. The test is performed by using a tendon hammer to quickly depress the biceps brachii tendon as it passes through the cubital fossa. Specifically, the test activates the stretch receptors inside the biceps brachii muscle which communicates mainly with the C5 spinal nerve and partially with the C6 spinal nerve to induce a reflex contraction of the biceps muscle and jerk of the forearm.

Cervical spinal nerve 5

The cervical spinal nerve 5 (C5) is a spinal nerve of the cervical segment.

Cervical spinal nerve 6 spinal nerve of the cervical segment

The cervical spinal nerve 6 (C6) is a spinal nerve of the cervical segment.

While the reflexes above are stimulated mechanically, the term H-reflex refers to the analogous reflex stimulated electrically, and tonic vibration reflex for those stimulated to vibration.

The H-reflex is a reflectory reaction of muscles after electrical stimulation of sensory fibers in their innervating nerves. The H-reflex test is performed using an electric stimulator, which gives usually a square-wave current of short duration and small amplitude, and an EMG set, to record the muscle response. That response is usually a clear wave, called H-wave, 28-35 ms after the stimulus, not to be confused with an F-wave. An M-wave, an early response, occurs 3-6 ms after the onset of stimulation. The H and F-waves are later responses. As the stimulus increases, the amplitude of the F-wave increases only slightly, and the H-wave decreases, and at supramaximal stimulus, the H-wave will disappear. The M-wave does the opposite of the H-wave. As the stimulus increases the M-wave increases. There is a point of minimal stimulus where the M-wave is absent and the H-wave is maximal.

Tonic vibration reflex is a sustained contraction of a muscle subjected to vibration. This reflex is caused by vibratory activation of muscle spindles — muscle receptors sensitive to stretch.

Tendon reflex

A tendon reflex is the contraction of a muscle in response to striking its tendon. [3] The Golgi tendon reflex is the inverse of a stretch reflex.

Tendon reflex may refer to:

The Golgi tendon reflex is a normal component of the reflex arc of the peripheral nervous system. In a Golgi tendon reflex, skeletal muscle contraction causes the antagonist muscle to simultaneously lengthen and relax. This reflex is also called the inverse myotatic reflex, because it is the inverse of the stretch reflex. Though muscle tension is increasing during the contraction, alpha motor neurons in the spinal cord supplying the muscle are inhibited. However, antagonistic muscles are activated.

Reflexes involving cranial nerves

Pupillary light reflex IIIII
Accommodation reflex IIIII
Jaw jerk reflex VV
Corneal reflex, also known as the blink reflexVVII
Glabellar reflex VVII
Vestibulo-ocular reflex VIIIIII, IV, VI +
Gag reflex IXX

Reflexes usually only observed in human infants

Grasp reflex Greifreflex.JPG
Grasp reflex

Newborn babies have a number of other reflexes which are not seen in adults, referred to as primitive reflexes. [4] These automatic reactions to stimuli enable infants to respond to the environment before any learning has taken place. They include:

Other reflexes

Other reflexes found in the central nervous system include:

Many of these reflexes are quite complex requiring a number of synapses in a number of different nuclei in the CNS (e.g., the escape reflex). Others of these involve just a couple of synapses to function (e.g., the withdrawal reflex). Processes such as breathing, digestion, and the maintenance of the heartbeat can also be regarded as reflex actions, according to some definitions of the term.


In medicine, reflexes are often used to assess the health of the nervous system. Doctors will typically grade the activity of a reflex on a scale from 0 to 4. [5] While 2+ is considered normal, some healthy individuals are hypo-reflexive and register all reflexes at 1+, while others are hyper-reflexive and register all reflexes at 3+.

1+ or +Hypoactive
2+ or ++"Normal"
3+ or +++Hyperactive without clonus
4+ or ++++Hyperactive with clonus

See also

Related Research Articles

The ankle jerk reflex, also known as the Achilles reflex, occurs when the Achilles tendon is tapped while the foot is dorsiflexed. It is a type of stretch reflex that tests the function of the gastrocnemius muscle and the nerve that supplies it. A positive result would be the jerking of the foot towards its plantar surface. Being a deep tendon reflex, it is monosynaptic. It is also a stretch reflex. These are monosynaptic spinal segmental reflexes. When they are intact, integrity of the following is confirmed: cutaneous innervation, motor supply, and cortical input to the corresponding spinal segment.

Somatic nervous system

The somatic nervous system is the part of the peripheral nervous system associated with the voluntary control of body movements via skeletal muscles.

A mechanoreceptor is a sensory receptor that responds to mechanical pressure or distortion. Normally there are four main types in glabrous, or hairless, mammalian skin: lamellar corpuscles, tactile corpuscles, Merkel nerve endings, and bulbous corpuscles. There are also mechanoreceptors in hairy skin, and the hair cells in thoreceptors of primates like rhesus monkeys and other mammals are similar to those of humans and also studied even in early 20th century anatomically and neurophysiologically.

Myoclonus medical sign

Myoclonus is a brief, involuntary, irregular twitching of a muscle or a group of muscles. It describes a medical sign and, generally, is not a diagnosis of a disease. These myoclonic twitches, jerks, or seizures are usually caused by sudden muscle contractions or brief lapses of contraction. The most common circumstance under which they occur is while falling asleep. Myoclonic jerks occur in healthy persons and are experienced occasionally by everyone. However, when they appear with more persistence and become more widespread they can be a sign of various neurological disorders. Hiccups are a kind of myoclonic jerk specifically affecting the diaphragm. When a spasm is caused by another person it is known as a provoked spasm. Shuddering attacks in babies fall in this category.

Patellar reflex

The patellar reflex or knee-jerk (myotatic) (monosynaptic) is a stretch reflex which tests the L2, L3, and L4 segments of the spinal cord.

The withdrawal reflex is a spinal reflex intended to protect the body from damaging stimuli. Spinal reflexes are often monosynaptic and are mediated by a simple reflex arc. A withdrawal reflex is mediated by a polysynaptic reflex resulting in the stimulation of many motor neurons in order to give a quick response.

Reciprocal inhibition describes the process of muscles on one side of a joint relaxing to accommodate contraction on the other side of that joint. In some allied health disciplines this is known as reflexive antagonism. Joints are controlled by two opposing sets of muscles, extensors and flexors, which must work in synchrony for smooth movement. When a muscle spindle is stretched and the stretch reflex is activated, the opposing muscle group must be inhibited to prevent it from working against the resulting contraction of the homonymous muscle. This inhibition is accomplished by the actions of an inhibitory interneuron in the spinal cord.

The jaw jerk reflex or the masseter reflex is a stretch reflex used to test the status of a patient's trigeminal nerve and to help distinguish an upper cervical cord compression from lesions that are above the foramen magnum. The mandible—or lower jaw—is tapped at a downward angle just below the lips at the chin while the mouth is held slightly open. In response, the masseter muscles will jerk the mandible upwards. Normally this reflex is absent or very slight. However, in individuals with upper motor neuron lesions the jaw jerk reflex can be quite pronounced.

Reflex hammer

A reflex hammer is a medical instrument used by practitioners to test deep tendon reflexes. Testing for reflexes is an important part of the neurological physical examination in order to detect abnormalities in the central or peripheral nervous system.

The triceps reflex, a deep tendon reflex, is a reflex as it elicits involuntary contraction of the triceps brachii muscle. It is initiated by the Cervical spinal nerve 7 nerve root. The reflex is tested as part of the neurological examination to assess the sensory and motor pathways within the C7 and C8 spinal nerves.

Axon reflex

The axon reflex is the response stimulated by peripheral nerves of the body that travels away from the nerve cell body and branches to stimulate target organs. Reflexes are single reactions that respond to a stimulus making up the building blocks of the overall signaling in the body's nervous system. Neurons are the excitable cells that process and transmit these reflex signals through their axons, dendrites, and cell bodies. Axons directly facilitate intercellular communication projecting from the neuronal cell body to other neurons, local muscle tissue, glands and arterioles. In the axon reflex, signaling starts in the middle of the axon at the stimulation site and transmits signals directly to the effector organ skipping both an integration center and a chemical synapse present in the spinal cord reflex. The impulse is limited to a single bifurcated axon, or a neuron whose axon branches into two divisions and does not cause a general response to surrounding tissue.

The vestibular evoked myogenic potential is a neurophysiological assessment technique used to determine the function of the otolithic organs of the inner ear. It complements the information provided by caloric testing and other forms of inner ear testing. There are two different types of VEMPs. One is the oVEMP and another is the cVEMP. The oVEMP measures integrity of the utricule and superior vestibular nerve and the cVemp measures the saccule and the inferior vestibular nerve.

Cutaneous reflex in human locomotion

Cutaneous, or skin reflexes, are activated by skin receptors and play a valuable role in locomotion, providing quick responses to unexpected environmental challenges. They have been shown to be important in responses to obstacles or stumbling, in preparing for visually challenging terrain, and for assistance in making adjustments when instability is introduced. In addition to the role in normal locomotion, cutaneous reflexes are being studied for their potential in enhancing rehabilitation therapy (physiotherapy) for people with gait abnormalities.


  1. Purves (2004). Neuroscience: Third Edition. Massachusetts, Sinauer Associates, Inc.
  2. "Definition of REFLEX".
  3. 1 2 3 "tendon reflex".
  4. "Neurologic Exam".
  5. University of Florida > Neurologic Examination Retrieved on May 9, 2009