Postnatal temporal, spatial and modality tuning of nociceptive cutaneous flexion reflexes in human infants.
Cornelissen L., Fabrizi L., Patten D., Worley A., Meek J., Boyd S., Slater R., Fitzgerald M.
Cutaneous flexion reflexes are amongst the first behavioural responses to develop and are essential for the protection and survival of the newborn organism. Despite this, there has been no detailed, quantitative study of their maturation in human neonates. Here we use surface electromyographic (EMG) recording of biceps femoris activity in preterm (<37 weeks gestation, GA) and term (≥ 37 weeks GA) human infants, less than 14 days old, in response to tactile, punctate and clinically required skin-breaking lance stimulation of the heel. We show that all infants display a robust and long duration flexion reflex (>4 seconds) to a single noxious skin lance which decreases significantly with gestational age. This reflex is not restricted to the stimulated limb: heel lance evokes equal ipsilateral and contralateral reflexes in preterm and term infants. We further show that infant flexion withdrawal reflexes are not always nociceptive specific: in 29% of preterm infants, tactile stimulation evokes EMG activity that is indistinguishable from noxious stimulation. In 40% of term infants, tactile responses are also present but significantly smaller than nociceptive reflexes. Infant flexion reflexes are also evoked by application of calibrated punctate von Frey hairs (vFh), 0.8-17.2 g, to the heel. Von Frey hair thresholds increase significantly with gestational age and the magnitude of vFh evoked reflexes are significantly greater in preterm than term infants. Furthermore flexion reflexes in both groups are sensitized by repeated vFh stimulation. Thus human infant flexion reflexes differ in temporal, modality and spatial characteristics from those in adults. Reflex magnitude and tactile sensitivity decreases and nociceptive specificity and spatial organisation increases with gestational age. Strong, relatively non-specific, reflex sensitivity in early life may be important for driving postnatal activity dependent maturation of targeted spinal cord sensory circuits.