Reflex arc

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
In a reflex arc, an action potential never travels to the brain for processing and so results in a much quicker reaction. When a stimulus (A) is encountered, the signal from that stimulus will travel up the sensory neuron (B, in green) to the spinal column (C). There, it will likely pass through a short interneuron (D, in purple) before continuing down a motor neuron (E, in blue) to the origin of the signal. Then, a contraction of the muscles (F) is triggered, moving the bone (G).

A reflex arc is a neural pathway that controls 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 is carried out. Analysis of the signal takes place after action has been taken.

There are two types of reflex arc: autonomic reflex arc (affecting inner organs) and somatic reflex arc (affecting muscles).

It is the pathway followed by sensory nerve in carrying the sensation from receptor organ to spinal cord and then the pathway followed by motor nerve in carrying the order from spinal cord to effector organ during a reflex action.

Monosynaptic vs. polysynaptic[edit]

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)[edit]

Main article: 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 specialized 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 of antagonist muscles, blocking the innervation of these antagonistic (hamstring) muscles. The relaxation of the opposing muscle facilitates (by not opposing) the extension of the lower leg.

In lower animals reflex interneurons do not necessarily reside in the spinal cord, for example as in the lateral giant neuron of crayfish.


  • Ganong, W. F. (2001). Review of Medical Physiology. McGraw-Hill Publishing, New York, p. 123. Ii

External links[edit]