In biology, a reflex, or reflex action, is an involuntary, unplanned sequence or action[1] and nearly instantaneous movement in response to a stimulus.[2][3] A reflex is made possible by neural pathways called reflex arcs which can act on an impulse before that impulse reaches the brain. The reflex is then an automatic response to a stimulus that does not receive or need conscious thought.[4]

Types of human reflexes

Myotatic reflexes

The myotatic or muscle stretch reflexes (sometimes known as deep tendon reflexes) provide information on the integrity of the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system. Generally, decreased reflexes indicate a peripheral problem, and lively or exaggerated reflexes a central one. A stretch reflex is the contraction of a muscle in response to its lengthwise stretch.

  • Biceps reflex (C5, C6)
  • Brachioradialis reflex (C5, C6, C7)
  • Extensor digitorum reflex (C6, C7)
  • Triceps reflex (C6, C7, C8)
  • Patellar reflex or knee-jerk reflex (L2, L3, L4)
  • Ankle jerk reflex (Achilles reflex) (S1, S2)

While the reflexes above are stimulated mechanically, the term H-reflex refers to the analogous reflex stimulated electrically, and tonic vibration reflex for those stimulated to vibration.

Tendon reflex

A tendon reflex is the contraction of a muscle in response to striking its tendon. The Golgi tendon reflex is the inverse of a stretch reflex.

Reflexes involving cranial nerves

Pupillary light reflexIIIII
Accommodation reflexIIIII
Jaw jerk reflexVV
Corneal reflex, also known as the blink reflexVVII
Glabellar reflexVVII
Vestibulo-ocular reflexVIIIIII, IV, VI +
Gag reflexIXX

Reflexes usually only observed in human infants

Grasp reflex

Newborn babies have a number of other reflexes which are not seen in adults, referred to as primitive reflexes. These automatic reactions to stimuli enable infants to respond to the environment before any learning has taken place. They include:

  • Asymmetrical tonic neck reflex (ATNR)
  • Palmomental reflex
  • Moro reflex, also known as the startle reflex
  • Palmar grasp reflex
  • Rooting reflex
  • Sucking reflex
  • Symmetrical tonic neck reflex (STNR)
  • Tonic labyrinthine reflex (TLR)

Other kinds of reflexes

Other reflexes found in the central nervous system include:

  • Abdominal reflexes (T6-L1)
  • Gastrocolic reflex
  • Anocutaneous reflex (S2-S4)
  • Baroreflex
  • Cough reflex
  • Cremasteric reflex (L1-L2)
  • Diving reflex
  • Muscular defense
  • Photic sneeze reflex
  • Scratch reflex
  • Sneeze
  • Startle reflex
  • Withdrawal reflex
    • Crossed extensor reflex

Many of these reflexes are quite complex requiring a number of synapses in a number of different nuclei in the CNS (e.g., the escape reflex). Others of these involve just a couple of synapses to function (e.g., the withdrawal reflex). Processes such as breathing, digestion, and the maintenance of the heartbeat can also be regarded as reflex actions, according to some definitions of the term.


In medicine, reflexes are often used to assess the health of the nervous system. Doctors will typically grade the activity of a reflex on a scale from 0 to 4. While 2+ is considered normal, some healthy individuals are hypo-reflexive and register all reflexes at 1+, while others are hyper-reflexive and register all reflexes at 3+.

0Absent ("mute")
1+ or +Hypoactive
2+ or ++"Normal"
3+ or +++Hyperactive without clonus, with spread to adjacent muscle groups
4+ or ++++Hyperactive with clonus

Reflex modulation

An example of reflex reversal is depicted. Activating the same spinal reflex pathway can cause limb flexion while standing, and extension while walking.

Naively, we might imagine that reflexes are immutable. In reality, however, most reflexes are flexible and can be substantially modified to match the requirements of the behavior in both vertebrates and invertebrates.[5][6][7]

A good example of reflex modulation is the stretch reflex.[8][9][10][11] When a muscle is stretched at rest, the stretch reflex leads to contraction of the muscle, thereby opposing stretch (resistance reflex). This helps to stabilize posture. During voluntary movements, however, the intensity (gain) of the reflex is reduced or its sign is even reversed. This prevents resistance reflexes from impeding movements.

The underlying sites and mechanisms of reflex modulation are not fully understood. There is evidence that the output of sensory neurons is directly modulated during behavior—for example, through presynaptic inhibition.[12][13] The effect of sensory input upon motor neurons is also influenced by interneurons in the spinal cord or ventral nerve cord[11] and by descending signals from the brain.[14][15][16]

See also

  • List of reflexes (alphabetical)
  • All-or-none law
  • Automatic behavior
  • Conditioned reflex
  • Instinct
  • Jumping Frenchmen of Maine
  • Preflexes
  • Voluntary action


  1. ^ parveen (November 11, 2020). "Reflex action". Definition, Types and Mechanism and Important solved questions. Crack Your Target. Retrieved 3 April 2021.
  2. ^ Purves (2004). Neuroscience: Third Edition. Massachusetts, Sinauer Associates, Inc.
  3. ^ "Definition of REFLEX".
  4. ^ "tendon reflex".
  5. ^ Pearson KG (1993). "Common principles of motor control in vertebrates and invertebrates". Annual Review of Neuroscience. 16: 265–97. doi:10.1146/ PMID 8460894.
  6. ^ Büschges A, Manira AE (December 1998). "Sensory pathways and their modulation in the control of locomotion". Current Opinion in Neurobiology. 8 (6): 733–9. doi:10.1016/S0959-4388(98)80115-3. PMID 9914236. S2CID 18521928.
  7. ^ Tuthill JC, Azim E (March 2018). "Proprioception". Current Biology. 28 (5): R194–R203. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2018.01.064. PMID 29510103.
  8. ^ Bässler U (1976-03-01). "Reversal of a reflex to a single motoneuron in the stick insect Çarausius morosus". Biological Cybernetics. 24 (1): 47–49. doi:10.1007/BF00365594. ISSN 1432-0770. S2CID 12007820.
  9. ^ Forssberg H, Grillner S, Rossignol S (August 1977). "Phasic gain control of reflexes from the dorsum of the paw during spinal locomotion". Brain Research. 132 (1): 121–39. doi:10.1016/0006-8993(77)90710-7. PMID 890471. S2CID 32578292.
  10. ^ Capaday C, Stein RB (May 1986). "Amplitude modulation of the soleus H-reflex in the human during walking and standing". The Journal of Neuroscience. 6 (5): 1308–13. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.06-05-01308.1986. PMC 6568550. PMID 3711981.
  11. ^ a b Clarac F, Cattaert D, Le Ray D (May 2000). "Central control components of a 'simple' stretch reflex" (PDF). Trends in Neurosciences. 23 (5): 199–208. doi:10.1016/s0166-2236(99)01535-0. PMID 10782125. S2CID 10113723.
  12. ^ Wolf H, Burrows M (August 1995). "Proprioceptive sensory neurons of a locust leg receive rhythmic presynpatic inhibition during walking". The Journal of Neuroscience. 15 (8): 5623–36. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.15-08-05623.1995. PMC 6577635. PMID 7643206.
  13. ^ Sauer AE, Büschges A, Stein W (April 1997). "Role of presynaptic inputs to proprioceptive afferents in tuning sensorimotor pathways of an insect joint control network". Journal of Neurobiology. 32 (4): 359–76. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1097-4695(199704)32:4<359::AID-NEU1>3.0.CO;2-5. PMID 9087889.
  14. ^ Mu L, Ritzmann RE (March 2008). "Interaction between descending input and thoracic reflexes for joint coordination in cockroach: I. descending influence on thoracic sensory reflexes". Journal of Comparative Physiology A: Neuroethology, Sensory, Neural & Behavioral Physiology. 194 (3): 283–98. doi:10.1007/s00359-007-0307-x. PMID 18094976. S2CID 25167774.
  15. ^ Martin JP, Guo P, Mu L, Harley CM, Ritzmann RE (November 2015). "Central-complex control of movement in the freely walking cockroach". Current Biology. 25 (21): 2795–2803. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.044. PMID 26592340.
  16. ^ Hsu LJ, Zelenin PV, Orlovsky GN, Deliagina TG (February 2017). "Supraspinal control of spinal reflex responses to body bending during different behaviours in lampreys". The Journal of Physiology. 595 (3): 883–900. doi:10.1113/JP272714. PMC 5285725. PMID 27589479.

Media files used on this page

Demonstration of reflex reversal.svg
Author/Creator: Lambdaloop, Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0
An example of reflex reversal is depicted. Activating the same spinal reflex pathway can cause limb flexion while standing, and extension while walking.
grasp reflex of a 5 month old baby boy.