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expert reaction to recent reports that Alfie Evans can respond to touch

Some media outlets are reporting that Alfie Evans is responding to touch.


Prof Maria Fitzgerald FRS FMedSci, Professor of Developmental Neurobiology at UCL, said:

“It is possible for touching the skin to trigger reflex movements even when an individual has no perception or ‘sense’ of the touch.   This is because reflexes are mediated at the level of the spinal cord which can continue to operate even if the brain itself is no longer functional.”


Dr Joe Brierley, Consultant in Paediatric and Neonatal Intensive Care at Great Ormond Street Hospital, said:

“The rooting reflex described is one of what are called ‘primitive reflexes.’ It is present when babies are born (at term) and helps the newborn baby feed and bond with its mother/others. It makes the baby turn its head towards anything that strokes its cheek or mouth, and as the baby then moves its head in decreasing movements it looks to be searching for what has stimulated it. For newborn babies this can be the mother’s nipple and so this reflex, together with another reflex, the sucking reflex, really helps with getting feeding established.

“Like the knee (patella) reflex – when a knee is tapped with a tendon hammer as is often seen on TV – this is an automatic primitive response, which means it is not under conscious control. After a few weeks the baby learns to move its head towards the stimulus/nipple without searching as a deliberate action, and so the rooting reflex has to go – otherwise the child could not learn to control its head movement, and therefore decide to feed/move.

“As with the other primitive reflexes the rooting reflex going away shows that the baby’s brain is developing, but if there is a problem with brain the reflex might not go away. It can even come back if brain damage affects the child later.

“Trained child-health assessment can easily distinguish between these two types movements (voluntary and involuntary) and parents and families can then be helped to understand that this is not a voluntary conscious movement but a reflex action to a stimulus.”


Declared interests

None received.


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