Startle evoked movement is delayed in older adults: Implications for brainstem processing in the elderly

Ursina A. Tresch, Eric J. Perreault, Claire F. Honeycutt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Little attention has been given to how age affects the neural processing of movement within the brainstem. Since the brainstem plays a critical role in motor control throughout the whole body, having a clear understanding of deficits in brainstem function could provide important insights into movement deficits in older adults. A unique property of the startle reflex is its ability to involuntarily elicit planned movements, a phenomenon referred to as startReact. The noninvasive startReact response has previously been used to probe both brainstem utilization and motor planning. Our objective was to evaluate deficits in startReact hand extension movements in older adults. We hypothesized that startReact hand extension will be intact but delayed. Electromyography was recorded from the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle to detect startle and the extensor digitorum communis (EDC) to quantify movement onset in both young (24 ± 1) and older adults (70 ±± 11). Subjects were exposed to a startling loud sound when prepared to extend their hand. Trials were split into those where a startle did (SCM+) and did not (SCM‑) occur. We found that startReact was intact but delayed in older adults. SCM+ onset latencies were faster than SCM‑ trials in both the populations, however, SCM+ onset latencies were slower in older adults compared to young (Δ = 8 msec). We conclude that the observed age-related delay in the startReact response most likely arises from central processing delays within the brainstem.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12025
JournalPhysiological reports
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Aging
  • Brainstem
  • Startle

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Physiology (medical)


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