Observations on the automatic compensation of reflex gain on varying the pre-existing level of motor discharge in man

J Physiol. 1986 May:374:73-90. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.1986.sp016066.


The human stretch reflex is well known to show 'automatic gain compensation'; in other words, the electromyographic (e.m.g.) response evoked by a given disturbance increases progressively with the level of pre-existing voluntary activity, and so remains an approximately constant proportion of the background. Such behaviour has now been observed using vibration as the stimulus to Ia action and recording the reflexly developed force, in addition to the e.m.g. Inhibition was studied as well as excitation by vibrating the antagonist as well as the agonist, and found to be similarly regulated. The experiments were performed on the elbow flexors while they were contracting isometrically under voluntary drive. The vibration was either square-wave modulated at 5 Hz or delivered in bursts of one to five pulses. The latency of the e.m.g. responses produced by the latter was sufficiently short to show that gain compensation was a feature of spinal reflex action. In the Discussion, it is concluded that in principle 'automatic gain compensation' can be readily attributed to the known organization of the motoneurone pool. As the background force increases so does the number of active motoneurones available to be frequency-modulated by a given input, and the larger and stronger will be those motor units which are on the verge of recruitment or de-recruitment.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Elbow
  • Electromyography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Isometric Contraction
  • Male
  • Muscles / physiology*
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Reflex, Stretch*
  • Vibration