Location specificity of plantar cutaneous reflexes involving lower limb muscles in humans

Exp Brain Res. 2006 Nov;175(3):514-25. doi: 10.1007/s00221-006-0568-6. Epub 2006 Jul 18.


It is known that cutaneous reflexes in human hand muscles show strong location-specificity dependent on the digit stimulated. We hypothesized that in lower leg muscles the cutaneous reflex following tactile sensation of the plantar surface of the foot is also organized in a location-specific manner. The purpose of the present study was to test this hypothesis. Middle latency reflexes (approximately 70-110 ms, MLR) following non-noxious electrical stimulation to different locations on the plantar foot were recorded from 16 neurologically intact volunteers (15 males, 1 female). Electrical stimulation was given to the fore-medial (f-M), fore-lateral (f-L) and heel (HL) regions of the plantar surface of the right foot while the subjects performed isometric dorsiflexion (tibialis anterior, TA), plantarflexion (soleus, Sol and medial gastrocnemius, MG), eversion (peroneus longus, PL) and knee extension (vastus lateralis, VL) while sitting and standing. In the Sol and MG, an excitatory response was observed following HL stimulation, which was switched to an inhibitory response following f-M or f-L stimulation (P < 0.001). A reciprocal pattern in contrast to Sol was observed in the TA. In the PL, MLR exhibited significant excitation following both f-L and HL stimulation, which, however, was switched to an inhibitory response following f-M stimulation (P < 0.001). Moderate inhibition of the MLR was seen in the VL for all stimulated positions. Systematic stimulation along the lateral side of the plantar foot demonstrated that the reflex reversal occurred around the middle of the plantar foot in the Sol and TA. In all muscles tested, the slope of the regression line between the magnitude of the MLR and background electromyographic activity significantly decreased during standing compared with sitting except for the PL following f-L simulation. These results suggest that reflex effects from cutaneous nerves in the plantar foot onto the motoneurons innervating the lower leg muscles are organized in a highly topographic manner in humans. The organization of these reflexes may play an important role in the alteration of limb loading and/or ground contact in response to tactile sensation of the plantar foot while sitting and standing.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Electromyography
  • Female
  • Heel / innervation*
  • Heel / physiology
  • Humans
  • Isometric Contraction / physiology
  • Male
  • Muscle, Skeletal / innervation*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Posture / physiology
  • Reflex / physiology*
  • Skin / innervation*
  • Tibial Nerve / physiology
  • Toes / innervation*
  • Toes / physiology
  • Touch / physiology