Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 174, Issue 3, pp 413–425 | Cite as

The effect of task instruction on the excitability of spinal and supraspinal reflex pathways projecting to the biceps muscle

  • Gwyn N. LewisEmail author
  • Colum D. MacKinnon
  • Eric J. Perreault
Research Article


There is controversy within the literature regarding the influence of task instruction on the size of the long-latency stretch reflex (M2) elicited by a joint displacement. The aim of this study was to investigate if the previously reported task-dependent modulation of the M2 is specific to the M2 or can be explained by an early release of the intended voluntary response. We took advantage of the fact that the M2 is absent when the duration of the applied perturbation is less than a critical time period. This allowed us to examine modulation of muscle activity with and without the contribution of the M2. In addition, we applied transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) over the primary motor cortex to examine the modulation of corticomotor excitability with task instruction. Elbow joint extension displacements were used to elicit a stretch reflex in the biceps muscle. Subjects were instructed to “do not intervene” (DNI) with the applied perturbation, or to oppose the perturbation by activating the elbow flexors in response to the perturbation (FLEX). Electromyographic (EMG) activity in the time period corresponding to the M2 was significantly facilitated in the FLEX task instruction both with and without the presence of the M2. Motor evoked potentials (MEPs) elicited by TMS were also facilitated during the FLEX condition in the absence of the M2. EMG and MEP responses were not facilitated until immediately prior to the onset of the M2. Paired-pulse TMS revealed a significant reduction in short-interval intracortical inhibition (SICI) during the M2 response, but the level of SICI was not altered by the task instruction. We conclude that the task-dependent modulation of the biceps M2 results, at least in part, from an early release of the prepared movement and is accompanied by an increase in corticospinal excitability that is not specific to the M2 pathway. Task-dependent modulation of the response cannot be explained by an alteration in the excitability of intracortical inhibitory circuits.


Stretch reflex Upper limb Transcranial magnetic stimulation Voluntary movement 



The authors would like to thank Tiffany Viant for her technical assistance in the laboratory. This project was supported by NIH grant 1-K25-HD044720 and a grant from the Whitaker Foundation (EP). GL was supported by a fellowship from the Brinson Foundation.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gwyn N. Lewis
    • 1
    Email author
  • Colum D. MacKinnon
    • 2
    • 3
  • Eric J. Perreault
    • 1
    • 4
    • 5
  1. 1.Sensory Motor Performance ProgramRehabilitation Institute of ChicagoChicagoUSA
  2. 2.Department of Physical Therapy and Human Movement SciencesNorthwestern UniversityChicagoUSA
  3. 3.Department of NeurologyNorthwestern UniversityChicagoUSA
  4. 4.Department of Physical Medicine and RehabilitationNorthwestern UniversityChicagoUSA
  5. 5.Department of Biomedical EngineeringNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA

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