Psychosocial stress has been shown to influence several aspects of human motor control associated with the fight-or-flight response, including augmentation of upper trapezius muscle activity. Given the established role of the reticular formation in arousal, this study investigated the contribution of reticulospinal activation to trapezius muscle activity during exposure to an acute psychosocial stressor. Twenty-five healthy adults were exposed to startling acoustic stimuli (SAS) while performing a motor task during periods of low and high psychosocial stress. Acoustic startle reflexes (ASRs) were recorded in the upper trapezius during low intensity contractions using both surface and intramuscular electromyography. Exposure to the stressor increased subjective and physiological measures of arousal (P < 0.01). The majority of participants demonstrated inhibitory ASRs, whereas a small subgroup with significantly higher trait anxiety (n = 5) demonstrated excitatory ASRs in the low stress condition. Changes in synaptic input for inhibitory ASRs were confirmed by decreases in the discharge rate of single motor units in response to the SAS. ASRs decreased in magnitude for all participants during exposure to the acute psychosocial stressor. These findings suggest that the reticular formation has predominately inhibitory effects on the human upper trapezius during an ongoing motor task and that disinhibition caused by psychosocial stress may contribute to augmentation of trapezius muscle activity. Further research is required to investigate mechanisms underlying the complex ASRs characterized by this study, particularly the phase reversal to excitatory responses observed among more anxious individuals.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY This study is the first to quantify stress-evoked changes in the acoustic startle reflex in the upper trapezius muscle of humans, and our findings reveal a complex pattern of inhibitory and facilitatory responses consistent with observations in nonhuman primates. We further demonstrate that psychosocial stress consistently reduces the amplitude of these responses. These findings have implications for the control of motor behaviors in response to stress.
- startle reflex
- motor units
- Copyright © 2017 the American Physiological Society
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