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Fractionation of muscle activity in rapid responses to startling cues

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Lauren Dean, Professor Stuart BakerORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


© the American Physiological Society. Movements in response to acoustically startling cues have shorter reaction times than those following less intense sounds; this is known as the StartReact effect. The neural underpinnings for StartReact are unclear. One possibility is that startling cues preferentially invoke the reticulospinal tract to convey motor commands to spinal motoneurons. Reticulospinal outputs are highly divergent, controlling large groups of muscles in synergistic patterns. By contrast the dominant pathway in primate voluntary movement is the corticospinal tract, which can access small groups of muscles selectively. We therefore hypothesized that StartReact responses would be less fractionated than standard voluntary reactions. Electromyogram recordings were made from 15 muscles in 10 healthy human subjects as they carried out 32 varied movements with the right forelimb in response to startling and nonstartling auditory cues. Movements were chosen to elicit a wide range of muscle activations. Multidimensional muscle activity patterns were calculated at delays from 0 to 100 ms after the onset of muscle activity and subjected to principal component analysis to assess fractionation. In all cases, a similar proportion of the total variance could be explained by a reduced number of principal components for the startling and the nonstartling cue. Muscle activity patterns for a given task were very similar in response to startling and nonstartling cues. This suggests that movements produced in the StartReact paradigm rely on similar contributions from different descending pathways as those following voluntary responses to nonstartling cues.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Dean LR, Baker SN

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Journal of Neurophysiology

Year: 2017

Volume: 117

Issue: 4

Pages: 1713-1719

Print publication date: 01/04/2017

Online publication date: 21/12/2016

Acceptance date: 15/12/2016

Date deposited: 10/05/2017

ISSN (print): 0022-3077

ISSN (electronic): 1522-1598

Publisher: American Physiological Society


DOI: 10.1152/jn.01009.2015


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Funder referenceFunder name
Medical Research Council (MRC)
MR/J012688/1Medical Research Council (MRC)
Wellcome Trust