A reflex arc is the neural pathway that mediates a reflex action. In higher animals, most sensory neurons do not pass directly into the brain, but synapse in the spinal cord. This characteristic allows reflex actions to occur relatively quickly by activating spinal motor neurons without the delay of routing signals through the brain, although the brain will receive sensory input while the reflex action occurs.
Monosynaptic vs. polysynaptic
When a reflex arc consists of only two neurons in an animal (one sensory neuron and one motor neuron), it is defined as monosynaptic. Monosynaptic refers to the presence of a single chemical synapse. In the case of peripheral muscle reflexes (patellar reflex, achilles reflex), brief stimulation to the muscle spindle results in contraction of the agonist or effector muscle.
By contrast, in polysynaptic reflex pathways, one or more interneurons connect afferent (sensory) and efferent (motor) signals. All but the most simple reflexes are polysynaptic, allowing processing or inhibition of polysynaptic reflexes within the spinal cord.
Classic Example: The Patellar Reflex
Patellar reflex: when the patellar tendon is tapped just below the knee, the patellar reflex is initiated and the lower leg kicks forward (via contraction of the quadriceps). The tap initiates an action potential in a specialised structure known as a muscle spindle located within the quadriceps. This action potential travels to the spinal cord, via a sensory axon which chemically communicates by releasing glutamate (see synapse) onto a motor nerve. The result of this motor nerve activity is contraction of the quadriceps muscle, leading to extension of the lower leg at the knee. The sensory input from the quadriceps also activates local interneurons that release the inhibitory neurotransmitter glycine onto motor neurons, blocking the innervation of the antagonistic (hamstring) muscle. The relaxation of the opposing muscle facilitates extension of the lower leg.
It should be noted that 'simple' monosynaptic reflexes do also have additional components. As the sensory axon enters into the spinal cord, it sends out a collateral axon which synapses onto an inhibitory interneuron. When activated, this IA inhibitory interneuron releases glycine which inhibits the motor activity of the antagonist muscle. The result is reinforced activity of the agonist muscle by removing tonic activity.
- Ole K. Andersen, SMI, Aalborg University - Physiological and Pharmacological modulation of the human nociceptive withdrawal reflex at smi.auc.dk
- Somatic Reflex Arc at vetmed.vt.edu
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- a_56/12149511 at Dorland's Medical Dictionary
- Overview at sfsu.edu
- Overview at rutgers.edu (with animation)
- 06-077c. at Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy Home Edition - "Physical Examination"
- Tutorial at wisc-online.com
- Ganong, W.F. 2001. Review of Medical Physiology. McGraw-Hill Publishing, New York, p. 123.