Somatosensory System

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Kaas for support and helpful comments. Users Online: Burton H, Fabri M Ipsilateral intracortical connections of physiologically defined cutaneous representations in areas 3b and 1 of macaque monkeys: projections in the vicinity of the central sulcus.

Chapter 7A: Somatosensory Systems

J Comp Neurol Chand P, Jain N Intracortical and thalamocortical connections of the hand and face representations in somatosensory area 3b of macaque monkeys and effects of chronic spinal cord injuries. J Neurosci Nat Commun Brain Res Many of these receptors are essentially nerve endings encapsulated in the cells of surrounding skin, muscle, or other tissue that have been modified into structures to convey physical forces pressure, stretching, motion to them.

Stimulating these mechanical receptors allows the flow of charged particles into the nerve, transforming the physical force. Other nerve endings in the system respond to changes in their chemical environment chemoreceptors or to temperature thermoreceptors. These receptors are quite specialized. One type of touch receptor responds to a light brushing contact with the skin, another to firmer touch, others to hard pressure and to vibration.

Nervous system introduction

There are at least six different thermoreceptors, each tuned to its own temperature range, from cold to warm to hot. The somatosensory system also includes receptors and neurons that convey information about body position and movement to the brain.

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These proprioceptors are housed in muscle, bone, and tendons and respond to stretch and contraction, tension and release. Pain is a member of the somatosensory family, with a difference: the other senses carry data about the external and internal environment that may or may not need prompt attention. Pain is primarily a protective system whose signals are hard to ignore. Although pain is often the reaction to a physical extreme of temperature, pressure, twisting force on a joint, muscle contraction , it is not registered by the usual receptors for that sensation but by specialized nociceptors.

These are bare nerve endings that are activated by mechanical force or by chemicals released by damaged or inflamed tissue. Nociceptors are specialized, too: different ones respond to different kinds of tissue injury or distress, to register sharp, dull, or aching pain. Visceral nociceptors, buried in the internal organs, convey painful sensations that warn of disease. Nerve impulses carrying somatic sensations travel along fibers peripheral nerves to the cell bodies of their respective neurons, which are located near the spinal cord.

Somatosensory System

There, the release of neurotransmitters passes the signal along to fibers of the spinal cord itself, which run up to the brain. Throughout this process, signals from the diverse types of sensation remain separate, traveling via parallel pathways. For most of these signals, the primary destination in the brain is the somatosensory cortex, a wide strip of the most evolved part of the brain that runs across the top of the brain from ear to ear.

Here and through connections with other brain regions, the myriad sensations of touch, temperature, and proprioception finally come together to be integrated into coherent, conscious experience—the perception of the physical self and its immediate contact with the world around it. Pain pathways facilitate rapid response.

While some signals go all the way to the somatosensory cortex, others connect at the thalamus—a kind of switchboard area of the brain—to regions that ready us for action, such as the emotion-regulating limbic system and structures that control heart rate and respiration. Many proprioceptive signals also terminate below the higher brain.


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Sensations from muscles and tendons involved in posture, reflex, and coordination are processed in the cerebellum, in addition to the cortex. For this reason, we ordinarily remain unaware of the continual physical adjustments that the brain and body execute to keep us upright and moving smoothly.

It is no accident that the somatosensory cortex is located directly adjacent to the motor cortex, which initiates voluntary movements. Both external and internal sensations provide essential information to guide when and how we move. The two cortices face each other, with multiple connections to facilitate feedback. Download this page as a PDF.


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Hearing is a mechanical sense. It turns physical movement into the electrical signals that make up the language of the brain, translating these vibrations into what we experience as the world of sound. All of our senses give us vital information about our surroundings, but the one we rely on most is vision. Accordingly, the physical apparatus for gathering visual information—the eye—and the brain circuits that process this information are more complex than corresponding systems for the other senses. The human brain is a network of networks: an intricate, integrated system that coordinates operations among billions of cells.

Although strokes are sudden, the brain injury they inflict typically evolves over the course of hours or even days.

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