Fractionation of muscle activity in rapid responses to startling cues

J Neurophysiol. 2017 Apr 1;117(4):1713-1719. doi: 10.1152/jn.01009.2015. Epub 2016 Dec 21.


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.NEW & NOTEWORTHY We demonstrate that the ability to activate muscles selectively is preserved during the very rapid reactions produced following a startling cue. This suggests that the contributions from different descending pathways are comparable between these rapid reactions and more typical voluntary movements.

Keywords: StartReact; fractionation; reticulospinal tract; startle.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adult
  • Cues*
  • Electromyography
  • Evoked Potentials, Motor / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Movement
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Principal Component Analysis
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reflex, Startle / physiology*
  • Time Factors