Ventral Horn Output
The somatic nervous system provides output strictly to skeletal muscles. The lower motor neurons, which are responsible for the contraction of these muscles, are found in the ventral horn of the spinal cord. These large, multipolar neurons have a corona of dendrites surrounding the cell body and an axon that extends out of the ventral horn. This axon travels through the ventral nerve root to join the emerging spinal nerve. The axon is relatively long because it needs to reach muscles in the periphery of the body. The diameters of cell bodies may be on the order of hundreds of micrometers to support the long axon; some axons are a meter in length, such as the lumbar motor neurons that innervate muscles in the first digits of the feet.
The axons will also branch to innervate multiple muscle fibers. Together, the motor neuron and all the muscle fibers that it controls make up a motor unit. Motor units vary in size. Some may contain up to 1000 muscle fibers, such as in the quadriceps, or they may only have 10 fibers, such as in an extraocular muscle. The number of muscle fibers that are part of a motor unit corresponds to the precision of control of that muscle. Also, muscles that have finer motor control have more motor units connecting to them, and this requires a larger topographical field in the primary motor cortex of the brain, which contains the upper motor neurons.
Motor neuron axons connect to muscle fibers at a neuromuscular junction. This is a specialized synaptic structure at which multiple axon terminals synapse with the muscle fiber sarcolemma. The synaptic end bulbs of the motor neurons secrete acetylcholine, which binds to receptors on the sarcolemma. The binding of acetylcholine opens ligand-gated ion channels, increasing the movement of cations across the sarcolemma. This depolarizes the sarcolemma, initiating muscle contraction. While other synapses result in graded potentials that must reach a threshold in the postsynaptic target, activity at the neuromuscular junction reliably leads to muscle fiber contraction with every nerve impulse received from a motor neuron. However, the strength of contraction and the number of fibers that contract can be affected by the frequency of the motor neuron impulses.
This chapter began by introducing reflexes as an example of the basic elements of the somatic nervous system. Simple somatic reflexes do not include the higher centers discussed for conscious or voluntary aspects of movement. Reflexes can be spinal or cranial, depending on the nerves and central components that are involved. The example described at the beginning of the chapter involved heat and pain sensations from a hot stove causing withdrawal of the arm through a connection in the spinal cord that leads to contraction of the biceps brachii. The description of this withdrawal reflex was simplified, for the sake of the introduction, to emphasize the parts of the somatic nervous system. But to consider reflexes fully, more attention needs to be given to this example.
As you withdraw your hand from the stove, you do not want to slow that reflex down. As the biceps brachii contracts, the antagonistic triceps brachii needs to relax. Because the neuromuscular junction is strictly excitatory, the biceps will contract when the motor nerve is active. Skeletal muscles do not actively relax. Instead the motor neuron needs to “quiet down,” or be inhibited. In the hot-stove withdrawal reflex, this occurs through an interneuron in the spinal cord. The interneuron’s cell body is located in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. The interneuron receives a synapse from the axon of the sensory neuron that detects that the hand is being burned. In response to this stimulation from the sensory neuron, the interneuron then inhibits the motor neuron that controls the triceps brachii. This is done by releasing a neurotransmitter or other signal that hyperpolarizes the motor neuron connected to the triceps brachii, making it less likely to initiate an action potential. With this motor neuron being inhibited, the triceps brachii relaxes. Without the antagonistic contraction, withdrawal from the hot stove is faster and keeps further tissue damage from occurring.
Another example of a withdrawal reflex occurs when you step on a painful stimulus, like a tack or a sharp rock. The nociceptors that are activated by the painful stimulus activate the motor neurons responsible for contraction of the tibialis anterior muscle. This causes dorsiflexion of the foot. An inhibitory interneuron, activated by a collateral branch of the nociceptor fiber, will inhibit the motor neurons of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles to cancel plantar flexion. An important difference in this reflex is that plantar flexion is most likely in progress as the foot is pressing down onto the tack. Contraction of the tibialis anterior is not the most important aspect of the reflex, as continuation of plantar flexion will result in further damage from stepping onto the tack.
Another type of reflex is a stretch reflex. In this reflex, when a skeletal muscle is stretched, a muscle spindle receptor is activated. The axon from this receptor structure will cause direct contraction of the muscle. A collateral of the muscle spindle fiber will also inhibit the motor neuron of the antagonist muscles. The reflex helps to maintain muscles at a constant length. A common example of this reflex is the knee jerk that is elicited by a rubber hammer struck against the patellar ligament in a physical exam.
A specialized reflex to protect the surface of the eye is the corneal reflex, or the eye blink reflex. When the cornea is stimulated by a tactile stimulus, or even by bright light in a related reflex, blinking is initiated. The sensory component travels through the trigeminal nerve, which carries somatosensory information from the face, or through the optic nerve, if the stimulus is bright light. The motor response travels through the facial nerve and innervates the orbicularis oculi on the same side. This reflex is commonly tested during a physical exam using an air puff or a gentle touch of a cotton-tipped applicator.
Watch this video to learn more about the reflex arc of the corneal reflex. When the right cornea senses a tactile stimulus, what happens to the left eye? Explain your answer.
Watch this video to learn more about newborn reflexes. Newborns have a set of reflexes that are expected to have been crucial to survival before the modern age. These reflexes disappear as the baby grows, as some of them may be unnecessary as they age. The video demonstrates a reflex called the Babinski reflex, in which the foot flexes dorsally and the toes splay out when the sole of the foot is lightly scratched. This is normal for newborns, but it is a sign of reduced myelination of the spinal tract in adults. Why would this reflex be a problem for an adult?