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Development of the Stretch Reflex in the Newborn: Reciprocal Excitation and Reflex Irradiation

Barbara M. Myklebust and Gerald L. Gottlieb
Child Development
Vol. 64, No. 4 (Aug., 1993), pp. 1036-1045
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Society for Research in Child Development
DOI: 10.2307/1131325
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1131325
Page Count: 10
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Development of the Stretch Reflex in the Newborn: Reciprocal Excitation and Reflex Irradiation
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Abstract

The stretch reflex is a spinal cord pathway between a muscle's stretch receptors and its own motor units. This reflex is thought to play an important role in normal motor function, because it is unique as a monosynaptic pathway, and because its hyperactivity is a hallmark of many motor disorders. We previously reported a difference in the stretch reflexes in healthy newborn infants and nonambulatory individuals with cerebral palsy (CP): these reflexes are characterized by responses from the stretched muscle and from the reciprocal or antagonist muscle. We proposed the existence of a functional spinal cord pathway that connects both agonist and antagonist muscles at a single joint. We hypothesized that this "reciprocal excitation" is a functional pathway of all newborn infants, which during the normal course of development of motor skills in infants is eliminated. If the CNS is damaged at birth, as in CP, the pathway of reciprocal excitation endures and is reinforced. In the current study of newborns, we recorded stretch reflex responses from all major muscle groups of the lower limb. This "irradiation of reflexes" is a normal phenomenon of the newborn CNS. This pathway becomes suppressed during normal maturation and control of coordinated limb movements.

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