Neural mechanisms underlying the clasp-knife reflex in the cat. I. Characteristics of the reflex

C. L. Cleland*, W. Z. Rymer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


1. The goal of this study was to characterize the clasp-knife reflex by the use of stretch and isometric contraction of ankle extensor and flexor muscles in decerebrated cats with bilateral dorsal hemisections of their spinal cords at segment T12. 2. Stretch of an extensor muscle evoked inhibition in both homonymous and synergistic extensor muscles. The similarities between homonymous and synergistic inhibition suggest that similar neural mechanisms were responsible. 3. Homonymous and synergistic clasp-knife inhibition showed several characteristic features: 1) inhibition was evoked only by large stretches that produced significant muscle force. Short stretches that did not produce large forces evoked only excitation; 2) the magnitude of clasp-knife inhibition increased with increasing initial motor output, as reflected in the level of rectified EMG; 3) the time course of reflex inhibition evoked by ramp-and-hold stretch was characterized by segmentation of EMG during ramp stretch, dynamic overshoot of inhibition at the end-of-ramp stretch, and slow but usually complete decay of inhibition during maintained stretch; 4) inhibition persisted beyond the termination of stretch, and 5) inhibition showed adaptation to repeated stretch. 4. Isometric contraction of the soleus or medial gastrocnemius, produced by electrical stimulation of the muscle nerve, also evoked powerful synergistic-reflex inhibition via similar mechanisms as stretch-evoked, clasp-knife inhibition. Stretch evoked a greater degree of inhibition than did contraction, indicating that receptors responsive to both stretch and contraction contribute to clasp-knife inhibition. 5. The reflex effects produced by stretching the soleus or medial gastrocnemius were not confined to the homonymous and close synergistic muscles. Extensor muscles were inhibited and flexor muscles were excited throughout the hindlimb, which paralleled the pattern of a flexion-withdrawal reflex evoked by cutaneous stimulation. 6. Stretch of a flexor muscle, the tibialis anterior, evoked the same spatial pattern and time course of reflex action as stretch of an extensor muscle-inhibition of extensor muscles and excitation of flexor muscles throughout the hindlimb, including homonymous excitation of the tibialis anterior. 7. We conclude that neither Golgi tendon organs nor secondary spindle afferents are likely to contribute significantly to clasp-knife inhibition because their responses to stretch and isometric contraction differ from the reflex actions evoked by stretch and contraction. Furthermore, the spatial divergence of the clasp-knife reflex and similarity across extensor and flexor muscles suggest that the clasp-knife reflex should be viewed primarily as a flexion-withdrawal reflex evoked by muscular stimuli rather than a homonymous force regulating reflex.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1303-1318
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1990

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Physiology


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