A reflex arc is a neural pathway that controls an action reflex. 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.
There are two types of reflex arc: autonomic reflex arc (affecting inner organs) and somatic reflex arc (affecting muscles).
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 brain.
The patellar reflex (knee jerk)
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.
- Ganong, W. F. (2001). Review of Medical Physiology. McGraw-Hill Publishing, New York, p. 123.
- 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
- Reflex+arc at eMedicine Dictionary
- "Reflex arc" at Dorland's Medical Dictionary