Short-latency stretch reflexes depend on the balance of activity in agonist and antagonist muscles during ballistic elbow movements

Zoe Villamar*, Daniel Ludvig, Eric J. Perreault

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The spinal stretch reflex is a fundamental building block of motor function, with a sensitivity that varies continuously during movement and when changing between movement and posture. Many have investigated task-dependent reflex sensitivity, but few have provided simple, quantitative analyses of the relationship between the volitional control and stretch reflex sensitivity throughout tasks that require coordinated activity of several muscles. Here, we develop such an analysis and use it to test the hypothesis that modulation of reflex sensitivity during movement can be explained by the balance of activity within agonist and antagonist muscles better than by activity only in the muscle homonymous with the reflex. Subjects completed hundreds of flex-ion and extension movements as small, pseudorandom perturbations of elbow angle were applied to obtain estimates of stretch reflex amplitude throughout the movement. A subset of subjects performed a postural control task with muscle activities matched to those during movement. We found that reflex modulation during movement can be described by background activity in antagonist muscles about the elbow much better than by activity only in the muscle homonymous to the reflex (P < 0.001). Agonist muscle activity enhanced reflex sensitivity, whereas antagonist activity suppressed it. Surprisingly, the magnitude of these effects was similar, suggesting a balance of control between agonists and antagonists very different from the dominance of sensitivity to homonymous activity during posture. This balance is due to a large decrease in sensitivity to homonymous muscle activity during movement rather than substantial changes in the influence of antagonistic muscle activity. NEW & NOTEWORTHY This study examined the sensitivity of the stretch reflexes elicited in elbow muscles to the background activity in these same muscles during movement and postural tasks. We found a heightened reciprocal control of reflex sensitivity during movement that was not present during maintenance of posture. These results help explain previous discrepancies in reflex sensitivity measured during movement and posture and provide a simple model for assessing their contributions to muscle activity in both tasks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7-16
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2023


  • movement
  • muscle
  • reflex
  • stretch reflex

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Physiology


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