What is reflex integration?
a novel and non-invasive method of improving developmental delays and central nervous system function in children with a variety of developmental disabilities. This method addresses disorders with a neurologic component, and it is based on the concept that unconditioned reflexes are not static and facilitate adaptation to the external environment, while becoming the foundation for physical, emotional, and cognitive development. Unconditioned reflexes, such as Babkin Palmomental, Babinski, Spinal Galant, and Perez are innate, genetically-based traits that are required for survival by all individuals…An assumption of the NRI therapeutic modality is that if the reflex arc of sensory input, brain processing, and motor response is complete, and the various reflexes are neurologically mature (myelinated), then physical, emotional and cognitive functions will function normally. Alternatively, emotional outbursts, cognitive deficiencies, or atypical movement patterns may occur if there are deficiencies in the interpretation of sensory information or motor responses are abnormal.
Unconditioned or primitive reflexes
Babies are born with a number of special reflexes. I’ll mention just three of the better-known ones.
Moro reflex: If a newborn senses that it is falling, it reacts instinctively by spreading out the arms, then unspreading them. This may have had an evolutionary advantage in helping the infant cling to the mother.
Rooting reflex: When a newborn’s cheek is stroked, it turns to that side and opens its mouth, a reflex that assists in breastfeeding.
Diving reflex: Most (but not all) infants up to six months old, when submerged, will spontaneously block off their airway, hold their breath, and their heart rate will slow down.
These newborn reflexes disappear as the child develops. In older children and adults, the persistence or re-emergence of primitive reflexes beyond the appropriate developmental stage is a sign of serious brain disease or damage.
Advocates of reflex integration treatments claim to find persistent unconditioned reflexes with associated symptoms. They say a persistent Moro reflex is associated with poor impulse control, sensory overload, anxiety, social immaturity, motion sickness, poor balance, poor coordination, distractibility, inability to adapt to change, and mood swings. Retention of the rooting reflex beyond four months is said to cause difficulty with solid foods, poor articulation, and thumb sucking. There are many more unconditioned reflexes with many more claims of associated symptoms.
The birth process is a key factor in the integration of these reflexes. Therefore a traumatic birth experience or birth by c-section may lead to retained reflexes. Additional causes can include: falls, traumas, lack of tummy time, delayed or skipped creeping or crawling, chronic ear infections, head trauma and vertebral subluxations.
The treatment consists of attempting to integrate these persistent unconditioned reflexes using various exercises and other modalities.
The Masgutova method
One of the best-known reflex integration therapies is the Masgutova Neurosensorymotor Reflex Integration (MNRI) method. Automatic primary motor reflex movements and patterns are its primary focus because they provide protection during infancy and when neurosensorimotor challenges are present (emotional and behavioral regulation issues), and because they are subordinate components of progressively more complex automatic motor reflex schemes, learned motor skills, and advanced motor planning, communication and cognitive development. They say anyone and everyone can potentially benefit.
The method was created by Svetlana Masgutova, a Russian PhD in Developmental and Educational Psychology. She treated children who developed PTSD after the Ufa Train Catastrophe, using movement and tactile activities to draw out “psychologically trapped” children. She was impressed that recovery times were far faster than expected.
The Masgutova website provides a list of scientific articles about MNRI in peer-reviewed journals. They don’t amount to much. The studies are typically poorly designed, without appropriate control groups. In one study of children with autism, the control groups were untreated children with autism and untreated neurotypical children. In studies like these, doing “anything” will always look better than doing “nothing.” They didn’t control for placebo effects or for the natural improvement of autistic symptoms over time. They demonstrated that patients showed improvement during MNRI, but they didn’t ask whether they improved more than they would with any other intervention that provided one-on-one attention, massage, other kinds of exercise, and other nonspecific treatments having nothing to do with primitive reflexes.
A committee of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reviewed MNRI in 2015 and concluded that it was an untested treatment not supported by any experimental studies.
Quantum Reflex Integration
The word “quantum” immediately raises red flags. The QRI website raises many more. QRI essentially adds sound and light to the mix, with harmonious frequencies and low-level cold lasers. It uses “harmonic laser frequencies for each reflex and acupoint.” Yes, you read that correctly: they invoke the mythical points of acupuncture. Cold lasers stimulate the mitochondria to increase the amount of ATP in the cell. So what? I couldn’t find anything on the website that explained the use of the word “quantum.” The website offers plenty of success stories and testimonials, but not a single scientific study.
A blog by a retired neuropsychologist characterizes primitive reflexes as “a new old fad” related to the idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. He explains that these reflexes become inhibited and disappear in normal development. In cerebral palsy, they may be retained and can sometimes be utilized to induce more reliable and predictable movements. The new fad therapies claim that retained primitive reflexes hinder achievement and can be corrected and “integrated” in short order. Many of them are shotgun approaches that incorporate just about any nonsense.
Conclusion: Long on claims and short on evidence
The various reflex integration therapies are based on speculative ideas about retained primitive reflexes. We can’t know whether any of them are effective, because they haven’t been scientifically tested.
This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.