1. The goal of this study was to characterize the functional properties of spinal interneurons that are excited by muscular free nerve endings and to assess their contributions to the clasp-knife reflex. 2. The patterns of activity of 82 spinal interneurons that were excited by squeezing the Achilles tendon or manipulation of the muscle surfaces, preferential stimuli for muscular free nerve endings, were extracellularly recorded in lamina V- VII of the L5-S1 spinal cord in decerebrated and spinalized cats. 3. Interneurons were uniformly excited by increases in muscular length and force. Responses to muscle stretch exhibited gradual decay during maintained stretch, afterdischarge after stretch release, and adaptation to repeated stretch. Responses to isometric contraction induced by electrical stimulation of motor axons was also prolonged after contraction, but did not decay during maintained contraction. For similar increases in force, stretch evoked greater excitation than contraction, indicating that both stretch and contraction contributed to interneuronal activity. Overall, the time course and magnitude of the interneuronal responses to stretch and contraction paralleled the time course and magnitude of the clasp-knife reflex. 4. Interneurons were powerfully excited by muscular free nerve endings, which mediate the clasp-knife reflex and by cutaneous receptors. Only occasionally were they excited by primary spindle or Golgi tendon organ afferents, which suggests that activation of muscular free nerve endings mediated the interneuronal responses to stretch and contraction. 5. Simultaneous recordings of interneuronal activity and the clasp-knife reflex revealed a broad correlation between interneuronal activity and clasp-knife inhibition. 6. Because the patterns of activity of free nerve ending-responsive interneurons during stretch and contraction were similar to the clasp-knife reflex, were closely correlated with clasp-knife inhibition during simultaneous interneuronal and reflex recordings, and were powerfully excited by muscular free nerve endings, it is likely that the interneurons described above contributed to the clasp-knife reflex. 7. In contrast, a small number (n = 16) of interneurons were recorded that were only weakly excited by muscular free nerve endings but strongly excited by group 1 afferents, exhibited less spontaneous and evoked activity, and had significantly different responses to stretch and contraction. These interneurons are less likely to have contributed to the clasp-knife reflex.
ASJC Scopus subject areas