Tactile, acoustic and vestibular systems sum to elicit the startle reflex

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2002 Jan;26(1):1-11. doi: 10.1016/s0149-7634(01)00057-4.


The startle reflex is elicited by intense tactile, acoustic or vestibular stimuli. Fast mechanoreceptors in each modality can respond to skin or head displacement. In each modality, stimulation of cranial nerves or primary sensory nuclei evokes startle-like responses. The most sensitive sites in rats are found in the ventral spinal trigeminal pathway, corresponding to inputs from the dorsal face. Cross-modal summation is stronger than intramodal temporal summation, suggesting that the convergence of acoustic, vestibular and tactile information is important for eliciting startle. This summation declines sharply if the cross-modal stimuli are not synchronous. Head impact stimuli activate trigeminal, acoustic and vestibular systems together, suggesting that the startle response protects the body from impact stimuli. In each primary sensory nucleus, large, second-order neurons project to pontine reticular formation giant neurons critical for the acoustic startle reflex. In vestibular nucleus sites, startle-like responses appear to be mediated mainly via the vestibulospinal tract, not the reticulospinal tract. Summation between vestibulospinal and reticulospinal pathways mediating startle is proposed to occur in the ventral spinal cord.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Animals
  • Blinking / physiology
  • Hearing / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Reflex / physiology
  • Reflex, Startle / physiology*
  • Rhombencephalon / physiology
  • Touch / physiology*
  • Vestibule, Labyrinth / physiology*