Sensory Processes

Senses provide information about the body and its environment. Humans have five special senses: olfaction (smell), gustation (taste), equilibrium (balance and body position), vision, and hearing. Additionally, we possess general senses, also called somatosensation, which respond to stimuli like temperature, pain, pressure, and vibration. Vestibular sensation, which is an organism’s sense of spatial orientation and balance, proprioception (position of bones, joints, and muscles), and the sense of limb position that is used to track kinesthesia (limb movement) are part of somatosensation. Although the sensory systems associated with these senses are very different, all share a common function: to convert a stimulus (such as light, or sound, or the position of the body) into an electrical signal in the nervous system. This process is called sensory transduction.

There are two broad types of cellular systems that perform sensory transduction. In one, a neuron works with a sensory receptor, a cell, or cell process that is specialized to engage with and detect a specific stimulus. Stimulation of the sensory receptor activates the associated afferent neuron, which carries information about the stimulus to the central nervous system. In the second type of sensory transduction, a sensory nerve ending responds to a stimulus in the internal or external environment: this neuron constitutes the sensory receptor. Free nerve endings can be stimulated by several different stimuli, thus showing little receptor specificity. For example, pain receptors in your gums and teeth may be stimulated by temperature changes, chemical stimulation, or pressure.

Reception

The first step in sensation is reception, which is the activation of sensory receptors by stimuli such as mechanical stimuli (being bent or squished, for example), chemicals, or temperature. The receptor can then respond to the stimuli. The region in space in which a given sensory receptor can respond to a stimulus, be it far away or in contact with the body, is that receptor’s receptive field. Think for a moment about the differences in receptive fields for the different senses. For the sense of touch, a stimulus must come into contact with body. For the sense of hearing, a stimulus can be a moderate distance away (some baleen whale sounds can propagate for many kilometers). For vision, a stimulus can be very far away; for example, the visual system perceives light from stars at enormous distances.

Transduction

The most fundamental function of a sensory system is the translation of a sensory signal to an electrical signal in the nervous system. This takes place at the sensory receptor, and the change in electrical potential that is produced is called the receptor potential. How is sensory input, such as pressure on the skin, changed to a receptor potential? In this example, a type of receptor called a mechanoreceptor (as shown in Figure 1) possesses specialized membranes that respond to pressure. Disturbance of these dendrites by compressing them or bending them opens gated ion channels in the plasma membrane of the sensory neuron, changing its electrical potential. Recall that in the nervous system, a positive change of a neuron’s electrical potential (also called the membrane potential), depolarizes the neuron. Receptor potentials are graded potentials: the magnitude of these graded (receptor) potentials varies with the strength of the stimulus. If the magnitude of depolarization is sufficient (that is, if membrane potential reaches a threshold), the neuron will fire an action potential. In most cases, the correct stimulus impinging on a sensory receptor will drive membrane potential in a positive direction, although for some receptors, such as those in the visual system, this is not always the case.

Illustration A shows a closed gated ion channel embedded in the plasma membrane. A hair-like tether connects the channel to the extracellular matrix outside the cell, and another tether connects the channel to the inner cytoskeleton. When the extracellular matrix is deflected, the tether tugs on the gated ion channel, pulling it open. Ions may now enter or exit the cell. Illustration B shows stereocilia, hair-like projections on outer hair cells that attached to the tectorial membrane of the inner ear. The outer hair cells are connected to the cochlear nerve.

Figure 1. (a) Mechanosensitive ion channels are gated ion channels that respond to mechanical deformation of the plasma membrane. A mechanosensitive channel is connected to the plasma membrane and the cytoskeleton by hair-like tethers. When pressure causes the extracellular matrix to move, the channel opens, allowing ions to enter or exit the cell. (b) Stereocilia in the human ear are connected to mechanosensitive ion channels. When a sound causes the stereocilia to move, mechanosensitive ion channels transduce the signal to the cochlear nerve.

Sensory receptors for different senses are very different from each other, and they are specialized according to the type of stimulus they sense: they have receptor specificity. For example, touch receptors, light receptors, and sound receptors are each activated by different stimuli. Touch receptors are not sensitive to light or sound; they are sensitive only to touch or pressure. However, stimuli may be combined at higher levels in the brain, as happens with olfaction, contributing to our sense of taste.

Encoding and Transmission of Sensory Information

Four aspects of sensory information are encoded by sensory systems: the type of stimulus, the location of the stimulus in the receptive field, the duration of the stimulus, and the relative intensity of the stimulus. Thus, action potentials transmitted over a sensory receptor’s afferent axons encode one type of stimulus, and this segregation of the senses is preserved in other sensory circuits. For example, auditory receptors transmit signals over their own dedicated system, and electrical activity in the axons of the auditory receptors will be interpreted by the brain as an auditory stimulus—a sound.

The intensity of a stimulus is often encoded in the rate of action potentials produced by the sensory receptor. Thus, an intense stimulus will produce a more rapid train of action potentials, and reducing the stimulus will likewise slow the rate of production of action potentials. A second way in which intensity is encoded is by the number of receptors activated. An intense stimulus might initiate action potentials in a large number of adjacent receptors, while a less intense stimulus might stimulate fewer receptors. Integration of sensory information begins as soon as the information is received in the CNS, and the brain will further process incoming signals.

Perception

Perception is an individual’s interpretation of a sensation. Although perception relies on the activation of sensory receptors, perception happens not at the level of the sensory receptor, but at higher levels in the nervous system, in the brain. The brain distinguishes sensory stimuli through a sensory pathway: action potentials from sensory receptors travel along neurons that are dedicated to a particular stimulus. These neurons are dedicated to that particular stimulus and synapse with particular neurons in the brain or spinal cord.

All sensory signals, except those from the olfactory system, are transmitted though the central nervous system and are routed to the thalamus and to the appropriate region of the cortex. Recall that the thalamus is a structure in the forebrain that serves as a clearinghouse and relay station for sensory (as well as motor) signals. When the sensory signal exits the thalamus, it is conducted to the specific area of the cortex (Figure 2) dedicated to processing that particular sense.

How are neural signals interpreted? Interpretation of sensory signals between individuals of the same species is largely similar, owing to the inherited similarity of their nervous systems; however, there are some individual differences. A good example of this is individual tolerances to a painful stimulus, such as dental pain, which certainly differ.

Illustration A shows side view of a human brain. The thalamus is in the inner, middle part. Illustration B shows the location of sensory processing regions in the brain. The visual processing region is at the back of the brain, the auditory processing region is in the middle of the brain, and the somatosensory processing region is located in a sliver-like region in the upper part of the brain and extending halfway down.

Figure 2. In humans, with the exception of olfaction, all sensory signals are routed from the (a) thalamus to (b) final processing regions in the cortex of the brain. (credit b: modification of work by Polina Tishina)Just-Noticeable Difference

In Summary: Sensory Processes

A sensory activation occurs when a physical or chemical stimulus is processed into a neural signal (sensory transduction) by a sensory receptor. Perception is an individual interpretation of a sensation and is a brain function. Humans have special senses: olfaction, gustation, equilibrium, and hearing, plus the general senses of somatosensation.

Sensory receptors are either specialized cells associated with sensory neurons or the specialized ends of sensory neurons that are a part of the peripheral nervous system, and they are used to receive information about the environment (internal or external). Each sensory receptor is modified for the type of stimulus it detects. For example, neither gustatory receptors nor auditory receptors are sensitive to light. Each sensory receptor is responsive to stimuli within a specific region in space, which is known as that receptor’s receptive field. The most fundamental function of a sensory system is the translation of a sensory signal to an electrical signal in the nervous system.

All sensory signals, except those from the olfactory system, enter the central nervous system and are routed to the thalamus. When the sensory signal exits the thalamus, it is conducted to the specific area of the cortex dedicated to processing that particular sense.