13.10 Sensory Perception

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe different types of sensory receptors
  • Describe the structures responsible for the special senses of taste, smell, hearing, balance, and vision
  • Distinguish how different tastes are transduced
  • Describe the means of mechanoreception for hearing and balance
  • List the supporting structures around the eye and describe the structure of the eyeball
  • Describe the processes of phototransduction

A major role of sensory receptors is to help us learn about the environment around us, or about the state of our internal environment. Stimuli from varying sources, and of different types, are received and changed into the electrochemical signals of the nervous system. This occurs when a stimulus changes the cell membrane potential of a sensory neuron. The stimulus causes the sensory cell to produce an action potential that is relayed into the central nervous system (CNS), where it is integrated with other sensory information—or sometimes higher cognitive functions—to become a conscious perception of that stimulus. The central integration may then lead to a motor response.

Describing sensory function with the term sensation or perception is a deliberate distinction. Sensation is the activation of sensory receptor cells at the level of the stimulus. Perception is the central processing of sensory stimuli into a meaningful pattern. Perception is dependent on sensation, but not all sensations are perceived. Receptors are the cells or structures that detect sensations. A receptor cell is changed directly by a stimulus. A transmembrane protein receptor is a protein in the cell membrane that mediates a physiological change in a neuron, most often through the opening of ion channels or changes in the cell signalling processes. Transmembrane receptors are activated by chemicals called ligands, for example, a molecule in food can serve as a ligand for taste receptors. Other transmembrane proteins, which are not accurately called receptors, are sensitive to mechanical or thermal changes. Physical changes in these proteins increase ion flow across the membrane and can generate an action potential or a graded potential in the sensory neurons.

Sensory Receptors

Stimuli in the environment activate specialised receptor cells in the peripheral nervous system. Different types of stimuli are sensed by different types of receptor cells. Receptor cells can be classified into types based on three different criteria: cell type, position, and function. Receptors can be classified structurally based on cell type and their position in relation to stimuli they sense. They can also be classified functionally based on the transduction of stimuli, or how the mechanical stimulus, light, or chemical changed the cell membrane potential.

Structural Receptor Types

The cells that interpret information about the environment can be either (1) a neuron that has a free nerve ending, with dendrites embedded in tissue that would receive a sensation; (2) a neuron that has an encapsulated ending in which the sensory nerve endings are encapsulated in connective tissue that enhances their sensitivity; or (3) a specialised receptor cell, which has distinct structural components that interpret a specific type of stimulus (Figure 13.10.1). The pain and temperature receptors in the dermis of the skin are examples of neurons that have free nerve endings. Also located in the dermis of the skin are lamellated corpuscles, neurons with encapsulated nerve endings that respond to pressure and touch. The cells in the retina that respond to light stimuli are an example of a specialised receptor, a photoreceptor.

Receptor classification by cell type. Receptor cell types can be classified based on their structure. Sensory neurons can have either (a) free nerve endings or (b) encapsulated endings. Photoreceptors in the eyes, such as rod cells, are examples of (c) specialised receptor cells.
Figure 13.10.1. Receptor classification by cell type. Receptor cell types can be classified based on their structure. Sensory neurons can have either (a) free nerve endings or (b) encapsulated endings. Photoreceptors in the eyes, such as rod cells, are examples of (c) specialised receptor cells. These cells release neurotransmitters onto a bipolar cell, which then synapses with the optic nerve neurons.

Another way that receptors can be classified is based on their location relative to the stimuli. An exteroceptor is a receptor that is located near a stimulus in the external environment, such as the somatosensory receptors that are located in the skin. An interoceptor is one that interprets stimuli from internal organs and tissues, such as the receptors that sense the increase in blood pressure in the aorta or carotid sinus. Finally, a proprioceptor is a receptor located near a moving part of the body, such as a muscle, that interprets the positions of the tissues as they move.

Functional Receptor Types

A third classification of receptors is by how the receptor transduces stimuli into membrane potential changes. Stimuli are of three general types. Some stimuli are ions and macromolecules that affect transmembrane receptor proteins when these chemicals diffuse across the cell membrane. Some stimuli are physical variations in the environment that affect receptor cell membrane potentials. Other stimuli include the electromagnetic radiation from visible light. For humans, the only electromagnetic energy that is perceived by our eyes is visible light. Some other organisms have receptors that humans lack, such as the heat sensors of snakes, the ultraviolet light sensors of bees, or magnetic receptors in migratory birds.

Receptor cells can be further categorised based on the type of stimuli they transduce. Chemical stimuli can be interpreted by a chemoreceptor that interprets chemical stimuli, such as an object’s taste or smell. Osmoreceptors respond to solute concentrations of body fluids. Additionally, pain is primarily a chemical sense that interprets the presence of chemicals from tissue damage, or similar intense stimuli, through a nociceptor. Physical stimuli, such as pressure and vibration, as well as the sensation of sound and body position (balance), are interpreted through a mechanoreceptor. Another physical stimulus that has its own type of receptor is temperature, which is sensed through a thermoreceptor that is either sensitive to temperatures above (heat) or below (cold) normal body temperature.

Sensory Modalities

Ask anyone what the senses are, and they are likely to list the five major senses—taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight. However, these are not all the senses. The most obvious omission from this list is balance. Also, what is referred to simply as touch can be further subdivided into pressure, vibration, stretch, and hair-follicle position, based on the type of mechanoreceptors that perceive these touch sensations. Other overlooked senses include temperature perception by thermoreceptors and pain perception by nociceptors.

Within the realm of physiology, senses can be classified as either general or specific. A general sense is one that is distributed throughout the body and has receptor cells within the structures of other organs. Mechanoreceptors in the skin, muscles, or the walls of blood vessels are examples of this type. General senses often contribute to the sense of touch, as described above, or to proprioception (body movement) and kinaesthesia (body movement), or to a visceral sense, which is most important to autonomic functions. A special sense is one that has a specific organ devoted to it, namely the eye, inner ear, tongue, or nose.

Each of the senses is referred to as a sensory modality. Modality refers to the way that information is encoded, which is similar to the idea of transduction. The main sensory modalities can be described based on how each is transduced. The chemical senses are taste and smell. The general sense that is usually referred to as touch includes chemical sensation in the form of nociception, or pain. Pressure, vibration, muscle stretch, and the movement of hair by an external stimulus, are all sensed by mechanoreceptors. Hearing and balance are also sensed by mechanoreceptors. Finally, vision involves the activation of photoreceptors.

Listing all the different sensory modalities, which can number as many as 17, involves separating the five major senses into more specific categories, or submodalities, of the larger sense. An individual sensory modality represents the sensation of a specific type of stimulus, for example, the general sense of touch, which is known as somatosensation, can be separated into light pressure, deep pressure, vibration, itch, pain, temperature, or hair movement.

Gustation (Taste)

Only a few recognised submodalities exist within the sense of taste, or gustation. Until recently, only four tastes were recognised: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Research at the turn of the 20th century led to recognition of the fifth taste, umami, during the mid-1980s. Umami is a Japanese word that means “delicious taste,” and is often translated to mean savory. Very recent research has suggested that there may also be a sixth taste for fats, or lipids.

Gustation is the special sense associated with the tongue. The surface of the tongue, along with the rest of the oral cavity, is lined by a stratified squamous epithelium. Raised bumps called papillae (singular = papilla) contain the structures for gustatory transduction. There are four types of papillae, based on their appearance (Figure 13.10.2): circumvallate, foliate, filiform, and fungiform. Within the structure of the papillae are taste buds that contain specialised gustatory receptor cells for the transduction of taste stimuli. These receptor cells are sensitive to the chemicals contained within foods that are ingested, and they release neurotransmitters based on the amount of the chemical in the food. Neurotransmitters from the gustatory cells can activate sensory neurons in the facial, glossopharyngeal, and vagus cranial nerves.

Diagram of tongue
Figure 13.10.2. The tongue. The tongue is covered with small bumps, called papillae, which contain taste buds that are sensitive to chemicals in ingested food or drink. Different types of papillae are found in different regions of the tongue. The taste buds contain specialised gustatory receptor cells that respond to chemical stimuli dissolved in the saliva. These receptor cells activate sensory neurons that are part of the facial and glossopharyngeal nerves. LM × 1600. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012).

Salty taste is simply the perception of sodium ions (Na+) in the saliva. When you eat something salty, the salt crystals dissociate into the component ions Na+ and Cl, which dissolve into the saliva in your mouth. The Na+ concentration becomes high outside the gustatory cells, creating a strong concentration gradient that drives the diffusion of the ion into the cells. The entry of Na+ into these cells results in the depolarisation of the cell membrane and the generation of a receptor potential.

Sour taste is the perception of H+ concentration. Just as with sodium ions in salty flavours, these hydrogen ions enter the cell and trigger depolarisation. Sour flavours are, essentially, the perception of acids in our food. Increasing hydrogen ion concentrations in the saliva (lowering saliva pH) triggers progressively stronger graded potentials in the gustatory cells. Orange juice, for example, —which contains citric acid—will taste sour because it has a pH value of approximately 3. Of course, it is often sweetened so that the sour taste is masked.

The first two tastes (salty and sour) are triggered by the cations Na+ and H+. The other tastes result from food molecules binding to a G protein–coupled receptor. A G protein signal transduction system ultimately leads to depolarisation of the gustatory cell. The sweet taste is the sensitivity of gustatory cells to the presence of glucose dissolved in the saliva. Other monosaccharides such as fructose, or artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (NutraSweet™), saccharine, or sucralose (Splenda™) also activate the sweet receptors. The affinity for each of these molecules varies, and some will taste sweeter than glucose because they bind to the G protein–coupled receptor differently.

Bitter taste is similar to sweet in that food molecules bind to G protein–coupled receptors. However, there are a number of different ways in which this can happen because there is a large diversity of bitter-tasting molecules. Some bitter molecules depolarise gustatory cells, whereas others hyperpolarise gustatory cells. Likewise, some bitter molecules increase G protein activation within the gustatory cells, whereas other bitter molecules decrease G protein activation. The specific response depends on which molecule is binding to the receptor.

One major group of bitter-tasting molecules are alkaloids. Alkaloids are nitrogen containing molecules that are commonly found in bitter-tasting plant products, such as coffee, hops (in beer), tannins (in wine), tea, and aspirin. By containing toxic alkaloids, the plant is less susceptible to microbe infection and less attractive to herbivores.

Therefore, the function of bitter taste may primarily be related to stimulating the gag reflex to avoid ingesting poisons. Because of this, many bitter foods that are normally ingested are often combined with a sweet component to make them more palatable (cream and sugar in coffee, for example). The highest concentration of bitter receptors appear to be in the posterior tongue, where a gag reflex could still spit out poisonous food.

The taste known as umami is often referred to as the savory taste. Like sweet and bitter, it is based on the activation of G protein–coupled receptors by a specific molecule. The molecule that activates this receptor is the amino acid L-glutamate. Therefore, the umami flavour is often perceived while eating protein-rich foods. Not surprisingly, dishes that contain meat are often described as savory.

Once the gustatory cells are activated by the taste molecules, they release neurotransmitters onto the dendrites of sensory neurons. These neurons are part of the facial and glossopharyngeal cranial nerves, as well as a component within the vagus nerve dedicated to the gag reflex. The facial nerve connects to taste buds in the anterior third of the tongue. The glossopharyngeal nerve connects to taste buds in the posterior two thirds of the tongue. The vagus nerve connects to taste buds in the extreme posterior of the tongue, verging on the pharynx, which are more sensitive to noxious stimuli such as bitterness.

Olfaction (Smell)

Like taste, the sense of smell, or olfaction, is also responsive to chemical stimuli. The olfactory receptor neurons are located in a small region within the superior nasal cavity (Figure 13.10.3). This region is referred to as the olfactory epithelium and contains bipolar sensory neurons. Each olfactory sensory neuron has dendrites that extend from the apical surface of the epithelium into the mucus lining the cavity. As airborne molecules are inhaled through the nose, they pass over the olfactory epithelial region and dissolve into the mucus. These odorant molecules bind to proteins that keep them dissolved in the mucus and help transport them to the olfactory dendrites. The odorant–protein complex binds to a receptor protein within the cell membrane of an olfactory dendrite. These receptors are G protein–coupled and will produce a graded membrane potential in the olfactory neurons.

The axon of an olfactory neuron extends from the basal surface of the epithelium, through an olfactory foramen in the cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone, and into the brain. The group of axons called the olfactory tract connect to the olfactory bulb on the ventral surface of the frontal lobe. From there, the axons split to travel to several brain regions. Some travel to the cerebrum, specifically to the primary olfactory cortex that is located in the inferior and medial areas of the temporal lobe. Others project to structures within the limbic system and hypothalamus, where smells become associated with long-term memory and emotional responses. This is how certain smells trigger emotional memories, such as the smell of food associated with one’s birthplace. Smell is the one sensory modality that does not synapse in the thalamus before connecting to the cerebral cortex. This intimate connection between the olfactory system and the cerebral cortex is one reason why smell can be a potent trigger of memories and emotion.

The nasal epithelium, including the olfactory cells, can be harmed by airborne toxic chemicals. Therefore, the olfactory neurons are regularly replaced within the nasal epithelium, after which the axons of the new neurons must find their appropriate connections in the olfactory bulb. These new axons grow along the axons that are already in place in the cranial nerve.

The olfactory system. (a) The olfactory system begins in the peripheral structures of the nasal cavity. (b) The olfactory receptor neurons are within the olfactory epithelium. (c) Axons of the olfactory receptor neurons project through the cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone and synapse with the neurons of the olfactory bulb (tissue source: simian
Figure 13.10.3. The olfactory system. (a) The olfactory system begins in the peripheral structures of the nasal cavity. (b) The olfactory receptor neurons are within the olfactory epithelium. (c) Axons of the olfactory receptor neurons project through the cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone and synapse with the neurons of the olfactory bulb (tissue source: simian). LM × 812. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012).

Disorders of the Olfactory System: Anosmia

Blunt force trauma to the face, such as that common in many car accidents, can lead to the loss of the olfactory nerve, and subsequently, loss of the sense of smell. This condition is known as anosmia. When the frontal lobe of the brain moves relative to the ethmoid bone, the olfactory tract axons may be sheared apart. Professional fighters often experience anosmia because of repeated trauma to face and head. In addition, certain pharmaceuticals, such as antibiotics, can cause anosmia by killing all the olfactory neurons at once. If no axons are in place within the olfactory nerve, then the axons from newly formed olfactory neurons have no guide to lead them to their connections within the olfactory bulb. There are temporary causes of anosmia, as well, such as those caused by inflammatory responses related to respiratory infections or allergies.

Loss of the sense of smell can result in food tasting bland. A person with an impaired sense of smell may require additional spice and seasoning levels for food to be tasted. Anosmia may also be related to some presentations of mild depression because the loss of enjoyment of food may lead to a general sense of despair.

The ability of olfactory neurons to replace themselves decreases with age, leading to age-related anosmia. This explains why some elderly people salt their food more than younger people do. However, this increased sodium intake can increase blood volume and blood pressure, increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases in the elderly.

Audition (Hearing)

Hearing, or audition, is the transduction of sound waves into a neural signal that is made possible by the structures of the ear (Figure 13.10.4). The large, fleshy structure on the lateral aspect of the head is known as the auricle. Some sources will also refer to this structure as the pinna, though that term is more appropriate for a structure that can be moved, such as the external ear of a cat. The C-shaped curves of the auricle direct sound waves toward the auditory canal. The canal enters the skull through the external auditory meatus of the temporal bone. At the end of the auditory canal is the tympanic membrane, or ear drum, which vibrates after it is struck by sound waves. The auricle, ear canal, and tympanic membrane are often referred to as the external ear. The middle ear consists of a space spanned by three small bones called the ossicles. The three ossicles are the malleus, incus, and stapes, which are Latin names that roughly translate to hammer, anvil, and stirrup. The malleus is attached to the tympanic membrane and articulates with the incus. The incus, in turn, articulates with the stapes. The stapes is then attached to the inner ear, where the sound waves will be transduced into a neural signal. The middle ear is connected to the pharynx through the Eustachian tube, which helps equilibrate air pressure across the tympanic membrane. The tube is normally closed but will pop open when the muscles of the pharynx contract during swallowing or yawning.

Structures of the ear.
Figure 13.10.4. Structures of the ear. The external ear contains the auricle, ear canal, and tympanic membrane. The middle ear contains the ossicles and is connected to the pharynx by the Eustachian tube. The inner ear contains the cochlea and vestibule, which are responsible for audition and equilibrium, respectively.

The inner ear is often described as a bony labyrinth, as it is composed of a series of canals embedded within the temporal bone. It has two separate regions, the cochlea and the vestibule, which are responsible for hearing and balance, respectively. The neural signals from these two regions are relayed to the brain stem through separate fibre bundles. However, these two distinct bundles travel together from the inner ear to the brain stem as the vestibulocochlear nerve. Sound is transduced into neural signals within the cochlear region of the inner ear, which contains the sensory neurons of the spiral ganglia. These ganglia are located within the spiral-shaped cochlea of the inner ear. The cochlea is attached to the stapes through the oval window.

The oval window is located at the beginning of a fluid-filled tube within the cochlea called the scala vestibuli. The scala vestibuli extends from the oval window, travelling above the cochlear duct, which is the central cavity of the cochlea that contains the sound-transducing neurons. At the uppermost tip of the cochlea, the scala vestibuli curves over the top of the cochlear duct. The fluid-filled tube, now called the scala tympani, returns to the base of the cochlea, this time travelling under the cochlear duct. The scala tympani ends at the round window, which is covered by a membrane that contains the fluid within the scala. As vibrations of the ossicles travel through the oval window, the fluid of the scala vestibuli and scala tympani moves in a wave-like motion. The frequency of the fluid waves match the frequencies of the sound waves (Figure 13.10.5). The membrane covering the round window will bulge out or pucker in with the movement of the fluid within the scala tympani.

Transmission of sound waves to cochlea.
Figure 13.10.5. Transmission of sound waves to cochlea. A sound wave causes the tympanic membrane to vibrate. This vibration is amplified as it moves across the malleus, incus, and stapes. The amplified vibration is picked up by the oval window causing pressure waves in the fluid of the scala vestibuli and scala tympani. The complexity of the pressure waves is determined by the changes in amplitude and frequency of the sound waves entering the ear.

A cross-sectional view of the cochlea shows that the scala vestibuli and scala tympani run along both sides of the cochlear duct (Figure 13.10.6). The cochlear duct contains several organs of Corti, which transduce the wave motion of the two scala into neural signals. The organs of Corti lie on top of the basilar membrane, which is the side of the cochlear duct located between the organs of Corti and the scala tympani. As the fluid waves move through the scala vestibuli and scala tympani, the basilar membrane moves at a specific spot, depending on the frequency of the waves. Higher frequency waves move the region of the basilar membrane that is close to the base of the cochlea. Lower frequency waves move the region of the basilar membrane that is near the tip of the cochlea.

Cross section of the cochlea
Figure 13.10.6. Cross section of the cochlea. The three major spaces within the cochlea are highlighted. The scala tympani and scala vestibuli lie on either side of the cochlear duct. The organ of Corti, containing the mechanoreceptor hair cells, is adjacent to the scala tympani, where it sits atop the basilar membrane.

The organs of Corti contain hair cells, which are named for the hair-like stereocilia extending from the cell’s apical surfaces (Figure 13.10.7). The stereocilia are an array of microvilli-like structures arranged from tallest to shortest. Protein fibres tether adjacent hairs together within each array, such that the array will bend in response to movements of the basilar membrane. The stereocilia extend up from the hair cells to the overlying tectorial membrane, which is attached medially to the organ of Corti. When the pressure waves from the scala move the basilar membrane, the tectorial membrane slides across the stereocilia. This bends the stereocilia either toward or away from the tallest member of each array. When the stereocilia bend toward the tallest member of their array, tension in the protein tethers opens ion channels in the hair cell membrane. This will depolarise the hair cell membrane, triggering nerve impulses that travel down the afferent nerve fibres attached to the hair cells. When the stereocilia bend toward the shortest member of their array, the tension on the tethers slackens and the ion channels close. When no sound is present, and the stereocilia are standing straight, a small amount of tension still exists on the tethers, keeping the membrane potential of the hair cell slightly depolarised.

diagram of hair cell
Figure 13.10.7. Hair cell. The hair cell is a mechanoreceptor with an array of stereocilia emerging from its apical surface. The stereocilia are tethered together by proteins that open ion channels when the array is bent toward the tallest member of their array and closed when the array is bent toward the shortest member of their array.
Cochlea and organ of corti.
Figure 13.10.8. Cochlea and organ of corti. LM × 412. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012).

As stated above, a given region of the basilar membrane will only move if the incoming sound is at a specific frequency. Because the tectorial membrane only moves where the basilar membrane moves, the hair cells in this region will also only respond to sounds of this specific frequency. Therefore, as the frequency of a sound changes, different hair cells are activated all along the basilar membrane. The cochlea encodes auditory stimuli for frequencies between 20 and 20,000 Hz, which is the range of sound that human ears can detect. The unit of Hertz measures the frequency of sound waves in terms of cycles produced per second. Frequencies as low as 20 Hz are detected by hair cells at the apex, or tip, of the cochlea. Frequencies in the higher ranges of 20 KHz are encoded by hair cells at the base of the cochlea, close to the round and oval windows. Most auditory stimuli contain a mixture of sounds at a variety of frequencies and intensities (represented by the amplitude of the sound wave). The hair cells along the length of the cochlear duct, which are each sensitive to a particular frequency, allow the cochlea to separate auditory stimuli by frequency, just as a prism separates visible light into its component colours.

Frequency coding in the cochlea.
Figure 13.10.9. Frequency coding in the cochlea. The standing sound wave generated in the cochlea by the movement of the oval window deflects the basilar membrane based on the frequency of sound. Therefore, hair cells at the base of the cochlea are activated only by high frequencies, whereas those at the apex of the cochlea are activated only by low frequencies.

Equilibrium (Balance)

Along with audition, the inner ear is responsible for encoding information about equilibrium, the sense of balance. A similar mechanoreceptor—a hair cell with stereocilia—senses head position, head movement, and whether our bodies are in motion. These cells are located within the vestibule of the inner ear. Head position is sensed by the utricle and saccule, whereas head movement is sensed by the semicircular canals. The neural signals generated in the vestibular ganglion are transmitted through the vestibulocochlear nerve to the brain stem and cerebellum.

The utricle and saccule are both largely composed of macula tissue (plural = maculae). The macula is composed of hair cells surrounded by support cells. The stereocilia of the hair cells extend into a viscous gel called the otolithic membrane ( Figure 13.10.10). On top of the otolithic membrane is a layer of calcium carbonate crystals, called otoliths. The otoliths make the otolithic membrane top-heavy. The otolithic membrane moves separately from the macula in response to head movements. Tilting the head causes the otolithic membrane to slide over the macula in the direction of gravity. The moving otolithic membrane, in turn, bends the sterocilia, causing some hair cells to depolarise as others hyperpolarise. The exact position of the head is interpreted by the brain based on the pattern of hair-cell depolarisation.

Linear acceleration coding by maculae.
Figure 13.10.10. Linear acceleration coding by maculae. The maculae are specialised for sensing linear acceleration, such as when gravity acts on the tilting head, or if the head starts moving in a straight line. The difference in inertia between the hair cell stereocilia and the otolithic membrane in which they are embedded leads to a shearing force that causes the stereocilia to bend in the direction of that linear acceleration.

The semicircular canals are three ring-like extensions of the vestibule. One is oriented in the horizontal plane, whereas the other two are oriented in the vertical plane. The anterior and posterior vertical canals are oriented at approximately 45 degrees relative to the sagittal plane (Figure 13.10.11). The base of each semicircular canal, where it meets with the vestibule, connects to an enlarged region known as the ampulla. The ampulla contains the hair cells that respond to rotational movement, such as turning the head while saying “no.” The stereocilia of these hair cells extend into the cupula, a membrane that attaches to the top of the ampulla. As the head rotates in a plane parallel to the semicircular canal, the fluid lags, deflecting the cupula in the direction opposite to the head movement. The semicircular canals contain several ampullae, with some oriented horizontally and others oriented vertically. By comparing the relative movements of both the horizontal and vertical ampullae, the vestibular system can detect the direction of most head movements within three-dimensional (3-D) space.

Rotational coding by semicircular canals
Figure 13.10.11. Rotational coding by semicircular canals. Rotational movement of the head is encoded by the hair cells in the base of the semicircular canals. As one of the canals moves in an arc with the head, the internal fluid moves in the opposite direction, causing the cupula and stereocilia to bend. The movement of two canals within a plane results in information about the direction in which the head is moving, and activation of all six canals can give a very precise indication of head movement in three dimensions.

Somatosensation (Touch)

Somatosensation is considered a general sense, as opposed to the special senses discussed in this section. Somatosensation is the group of sensory modalities that are associated with touch, proprioception, and interoception. These modalities include pressure, vibration, light touch, tickle, itch, temperature, pain, proprioception, and kinaesthesia. This means that its receptors are not associated with a specialised organ but are instead spread throughout the body in a variety of organs. Many of the somatosensory receptors are located in the skin, but receptors are also found in muscles, tendons, joint capsules, ligaments, and in the walls of visceral organs.

Two types of somatosensory signals that are transduced by free nerve endings are pain and temperature. These two modalities use thermoreceptors and nociceptors to transduce temperature and pain stimuli, respectively. Temperature receptors are stimulated when local temperatures differ from body temperature. Some thermoreceptors are sensitive to just cold and others to just heat. Nociception is the sensation of potentially damaging stimuli. Mechanical, chemical, or thermal stimuli beyond a set threshold will elicit painful sensations. Stressed or damaged tissues release chemicals that activate receptor proteins in the nociceptors. The sensation of heat associated with spicy foods, for example, involves capsaicin, the active molecule in hot peppers. Capsaicin molecules bind to a transmembrane ion channel in nociceptors that is sensitive to temperatures above 37°C. The dynamics of capsaicin binding with this transmembrane ion channel is unusual in that the molecule remains bound for a long time. Because of this, it will decrease the ability of other stimuli to elicit pain sensations through the activated nociceptor. For this reason, capsaicin can be used as a topical analgesic, such as in products such as Icy Hot™.

If you drag your finger across a textured surface, the skin of your finger will vibrate. Such low frequency vibrations are sensed by mechanoreceptors called Merkel cells, also known as type I cutaneous mechanoreceptors. Merkel cells are located in the stratum basale of the epidermis. Deep pressure and vibration is transduced by lamellated (Pacinian) corpuscles, which are receptors with encapsulated endings found deep in the dermis, or subcutaneous tissue. Light touch is transduced by the encapsulated endings known as tactile (Meissner) corpuscles. Follicles are also wrapped in a plexus of nerve endings known as the hair follicle plexus. These nerve endings detect the movement of hair at the surface of the skin, such as when an insect may be walking along the skin. Stretching of the skin is transduced by stretch receptors known as bulbous corpuscles. Bulbous corpuscles are also known as Ruffini corpuscles, or type II cutaneous mechanoreceptors.

Other somatosensory receptors are found in the joints and muscles. Stretch receptors monitor the stretching of tendons, muscles, and the components of joints. Have you ever stretched your muscles before or after exercise and noticed that you can only stretch so far before your muscles spasm back to a less stretched state? This spasm is a reflex that is initiated by stretch receptors to avoid muscle tearing. Such stretch receptors can also prevent over-contraction of a muscle. In skeletal muscle tissue, these stretch receptors are called muscle spindles. Golgi tendon organs similarly transduce the stretch levels of tendons. Bulbous corpuscles are also present in joint capsules, where they measure stretch in the components of the skeletal system within the joint. The types of nerve endings, their locations, and the stimuli they transduce are presented in Table 13.10.1.

Table 13.10.1. Mechanoreceptors of somatosensation

Name Historical (eponymous) name Location(s) Stimuli
Free nerve endings * Dermis, cornea, tongue, joint capsules, visceral organs Pain, temperature, mechanical deformation
Mechanoreceptors Markel’s discs Epidermal-dermal junction, mucosal membranes Lower frequency vibration (5-15 Hz)
Bulbous corpuscle Ruffini’s corpuscle Dermis, joint capsules Stretch
Tactile corpuscle Meissner’s corpuscle Papillary dermis, especially in the fingertips and lips Light touch, vibrations below 50 Hz
Lamellated corpuscle Pacinian corpuscle Deep dermis, subcutaneous tissue Deep pressure, high frequency vibration (around 250 Hz)
Hair follicle * Wrapped around hair follicles in the dermis Movement of hair
Muscle spindle * In line with skeletal muscle fibres Muscle contraction and stretch
Tendon stretch organ Golgi tendon organ In line with tendons Stretch of tendons

* No corresponding eponymous name


Vision is the special sense of sight that is based on the transduction of light stimuli received through the eyes. The eyes are located within either orbit in the skull. The bony orbits surround the eyeballs, protecting them and anchoring the soft tissues of the eye (Figure 13.10.12). The eyelids, with lashes at their leading edges, help to protect the eye from abrasions by blocking particles that may land on the surface of the eye. The inner surface of each lid is a thin membrane known as the palpebral conjunctiva. The conjunctiva extends over the white areas of the eye (the sclera), connecting the eyelids to the eyeball. Tears are produced by the lacrimal gland, located beneath the lateral edges of the nose. Tears produced by this gland flow through the lacrimal duct to the medial corner of the eye, where the tears flow over the conjunctiva, washing away foreign particles.

Diagram of eye in orbit
Figure 13.10.12. The eye in the orbit. The eye is located within the orbit and surrounded by soft tissues that protect and support its function. The orbit is surrounded by cranial bones of the skull.

Movement of the eye within the orbit is accomplished by the contraction of six extraocular muscles that originate from the bones of the orbit and insert into the surface of the eyeball (Figure 13.10.). Four of the muscles are arranged at the cardinal points around the eye and are named for those locations. They are the superior rectus, medial rectus, inferior rectus, and lateral rectus. When each of these muscles contract, the eye to moves toward the contracting muscle, for example, when the superior rectus contracts, the eye rotates to look up. The superior oblique originates at the posterior orbit, near the origin of the four rectus muscles. However, the tendon of the oblique muscles threads through a pulley-like piece of cartilage known as the trochlea. The tendon inserts obliquely into the superior surface of the eye. The angle of the tendon through the trochlea means that contraction of the superior oblique rotates the eye medially. The inferior oblique muscle originates from the floor of the orbit and inserts into the inferolateral surface of the eye. When it contracts, it laterally rotates the eye, in opposition to the superior oblique. Rotation of the eye by the two oblique muscles is necessary because the eye is not perfectly aligned on the sagittal plane. When the eye looks up or down, the eye must also rotate slightly to compensate for the superior rectus pulling at approximately a 20-degree angle, rather than straight up. The same is true for the inferior rectus, which is compensated by contraction of the inferior oblique. A seventh muscle in the orbit is the levator palpebrae superioris, which is responsible for elevating and retracting the upper eyelid, a movement that usually occurs in concert with elevation of the eye by the superior rectus (see Figure 13.10.13).

The extraocular muscles are innervated by three cranial nerves. The lateral rectus, which causes abduction of the eye, is innervated by the abducens nerve. The superior oblique is innervated by the trochlear nerve. All of the other muscles are innervated by the oculomotor nerve, as is the levator palpebrae superioris. The motor nuclei of these cranial nerves connect to the brain stem, which coordinates eye movements.

Diagram of Extraocular muscles
Figure 13.10.13. Extraocular muscles. The extraocular muscles move the eye within the orbit.

The eye itself is a hollow sphere composed of three layers of tissue. The outermost layer is the fibrous tunic, which includes the white sclera and clear cornea. The sclera accounts for five sixths of the surface of the eye, most of which is not visible, though humans are unique compared with many other species in having so much of the “white of the eye” visible (Figure 13.10.14). The transparent cornea covers the anterior tip of the eye and allows light to enter the eye. The middle layer of the eye is the vascular tunic, which is mostly composed of the choroid, ciliary body, and iris. The choroid is a layer of highly vascularised connective tissue that provides a blood supply to the eyeball. The choroid is posterior to the ciliary body, a muscular structure that is attached to the lens by zonule fibres. These two structures bend the lens, allowing it to focus light on the back of the eye. Overlaying the ciliary body, and visible in the anterior eye, is the iris—the coloured part of the eye. The iris is a smooth muscle that opens or closes the pupil, which is the hole at the centre of the eye that allows light to enter. The iris constricts the pupil in response to bright light and dilates the pupil in response to dim light. The innermost layer of the eye is the neural tunic, or retina, which contains the nervous tissue responsible for photoreception.

The eye is also divided into two cavities: the anterior cavity and the posterior cavity. The anterior cavity is the space between the cornea and lens, including the iris and ciliary body. It is filled with a watery fluid called the aqueous humour. The posterior cavity is the space behind the lens that extends to the posterior side of the interior eyeball, where the retina is located. The posterior cavity is filled with a more viscous fluid called the vitreous humour.

The retina is composed of several layers and contains specialised cells for the initial processing of visual stimuli. The photoreceptors (rods and cones) change their membrane potential when stimulated by light energy. The change in membrane potential alters the amount of neurotransmitter that the photoreceptor cells release onto bipolar cells in the outer synaptic layer. It is the bipolar cell in the retina that connects a photoreceptor to a retinal ganglion cell (RGC) in the inner synaptic layer. There, amacrine cells additionally contribute to retinal processing before an action potential is produced by the RGC. The axons of RGCs, which lie at the innermost layer of the retina, collect at the optic disc and leave the eye as the optic nerve (see Figure 13.10.14). Because these axons pass through the retina, there are no photoreceptors at the very back of the eye, where the optic nerve begins. This creates a “blind spot” in the retina, and a corresponding blind spot in our visual field.

Structure of the eye
Figure 13.10.14. Structure of the eye. The sphere of the eye can be divided into anterior and posterior chambers. The wall of the eye is composed of three layers: the fibrous tunic, vascular tunic, and neural tunic. Within the neural tunic is the retina, with three layers of cells and two synaptic layers in between. The centre of the retina has a small indentation known as the fovea.

Note that the photoreceptors in the retina (rods and cones) are located behind the axons, RGCs, bipolar cells, and retinal blood vessels. A significant amount of light is absorbed by these structures before the light reaches the photoreceptor cells. However, at the exact centre of the retina is a small area known as the fovea. At the fovea, the retina lacks the supporting cells and blood vessels, and only contains photoreceptors. Therefore, visual acuity, or the sharpness of vision, is greatest at the fovea. This is because the fovea is where the least amount of incoming light is absorbed by other retinal structures (see Figure 13.10.14). As one moves in either direction from this central point of the retina, visual acuity drops significantly. In addition, each photoreceptor cell of the fovea is connected to a single RGC. Therefore, this RGC does not have to integrate inputs from multiple photoreceptors, which reduces the accuracy of visual transduction. Toward the edges of the retina, several photoreceptors converge on RGCs (through the bipolar cells) up to a ratio of 50 to 1. The difference in visual acuity between the fovea and peripheral retina is easily evidenced by looking directly at a word in the middle of this paragraph. The visual stimulus in the middle of the field of view falls on the fovea and is in the sharpest focus. Without moving your eyes off that word, notice that words at the beginning or end of the paragraph are not in focus. The images in your peripheral vision are focused by the peripheral retina, and have vague, blurry edges and words that are not as clearly identified. As a result, a large part of the neural function of the eyes is concerned with moving the eyes and head so that important visual stimuli are centred on the fovea.

Light falling on the retina causes chemical changes to pigment molecules in the photoreceptors, ultimately leading to a change in the activity of the RGCs. Photoreceptor cells have two parts, the inner segment and the outer segment (Figure 13.10.15). The inner segment contains the nucleus and other common organelles of a cell, whereas the outer segment is a specialised region in which photoreception takes place. There are two types of photoreceptors—rods and cones—which differ in the shape of their outer segment. The rod-shaped outer segments of the rod photoreceptor contain a stack of membrane-bound discs that contain the photosensitive pigment rhodopsin. The cone-shaped outer segments of the cone photoreceptor contain their photosensitive pigments in infoldings of the cell membrane. There are three cone photopigments, called opsins, which are each sensitive to a particular wavelength of light. The wavelength of visible light determines its colour. The pigments in human eyes are specialised in perceiving three different primary colours: red, green, and blue.

Photoreceptor. (a) All photoreceptors have inner segments containing the nucleus and other important organelles and outer segments with membrane arrays containing the photosensitive opsin molecules. Rod outer segments are long columnar shapes with stacks of membrane-bound discs that contain the rhodopsin pigment. Cone outer segments are short, tapered shapes with folds of membrane in place of the discs in the rods. (b) Tissue of the retina shows a dense layer of nuclei of the rods and cones.
Figure 13.10.15. Photoreceptor. (a) All photoreceptors have inner segments containing the nucleus and other important organelles and outer segments with membrane arrays containing the photosensitive opsin molecules. Rod outer segments are long columnar shapes with stacks of membrane-bound discs that contain the rhodopsin pigment. Cone outer segments are short, tapered shapes with folds of membrane in place of the discs in the rods. (b) Tissue of the retina shows a dense layer of nuclei of the rods and cones. LM × 800. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012).

At the molecular level, visual stimuli cause changes in the photopigment molecule that lead to changes in membrane potential of the photoreceptor cell. A single unit of light is called a photon, which is described in physics as a packet of energy with properties of both a particle and a wave. The energy of a photon is represented by its wavelength, with each wavelength of visible light corresponding to a particular colour. Visible light is electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength between 380 and 720 nm. Wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation longer than 720 nm fall into the infrared range, whereas wavelengths shorter than 380 nm fall into the ultraviolet range. Light with a wavelength of 380 nm is blue whereas light with a wavelength of 720 nm is dark red. All other colours fall between red and blue at various points along the wavelength scale.

Opsin pigments are actually transmembrane proteins that contain a cofactor known as retinal. Retinal is a hydrocarbon molecule related to vitamin A. When a photon hits retinal, the long hydrocarbon chain of the molecule is biochemically altered. Specifically, photons cause some of the double-bonded carbons within the chain to switch from a cis to a trans conformation. This process is called photoisomerisation. Before interacting with a photon, retinal’s flexible double-bonded carbons are in the cis conformation. This molecule is referred to as 11-cis-retinal. A photon interacting with the molecule causes the flexible double-bonded carbons to change to the trans– conformation, forming all-trans-retinal, which has a straight hydrocarbon chain (Figure 13.10.16).

The shape change of retinal in the photoreceptors initiates visual transduction in the retina. Activation of retinal and the opsin proteins result in activation of a G protein. The G protein changes the membrane potential of the photoreceptor cell, which then releases less neurotransmitter into the outer synaptic layer of the retina. Until the retinal molecule is changed back to the 11-cis-retinal shape, the opsin cannot respond to light energy, which is called bleaching. When a large group of photopigments is bleached, the retina will send information as if opposing visual information is being perceived. After a bright flash of light, afterimages are usually seen in negative. The photoisomerisation is reversed by a series of enzymatic changes so that the retinal responds to more light energy.

The retinal molecule has two isomers, (a) one before a photon interacts with it and (b) one that is altered through photoisomerisation.
Figure 13.10.16. Retinal isomers. The retinal molecule has two isomers, (a) one before a photon interacts with it and (b) one that is altered through photoisomerisation.

The opsins are sensitive to limited wavelengths of light. Rhodopsin, the photopigment in rods, is most sensitive to light at a wavelength of 498 nm. The three colour opsins have peak sensitivities of 564 nm, 534 nm, and 420 nm corresponding roughly to the primary colours of red, green, and blue (Figure 13.10.17). The absorbance of rhodopsin in the rods is much more sensitive than in the cone opsins; specifically, rods are sensitive to vision in low light conditions, and cones are sensitive to brighter conditions. In normal sunlight, rhodopsin will be constantly bleached while the cones are active. In a darkened room, there is not enough light to activate cone opsins, and vision is entirely dependent on rods. Rods are so sensitive to light that a single photon can result in an action potential from a rod’s corresponding RGC.

The three types of cone opsins, being sensitive to different wavelengths of light, provide us with colour vision. By comparing the activity of the three different cones, the brain can extract colour information from visual stimuli. A bright blue light, for example, that has a wavelength of approximately 450 nm would activate the “red” cones minimally, the “green” cones marginally, and the “blue” cones predominantly. The relative activation of the three different cones is calculated by the brain, which perceives the colour as blue. However, cones cannot react to low-intensity light, and rods do not sense the colour of light. Therefore, our low-light vision is—in essence—in greyscale. In other words, in a dark room, everything appears as a shade of grey. If you think that you can see colours in the dark, it is because your brain knows what colour something is and is relying on that memory.

Comparison of colour sensitivity of photopigments in graph
Figure 13.10.17. Comparison of colour sensitivity of photopigments. Comparing the peak sensitivity and absorbance spectra of the four photopigments suggests that they are most sensitive to particular wavelengths.

Sensory Nerves

Once any sensory cell transduces a stimulus into a nerve impulse, that impulse must travel along axons to reach the CNS. In many of the special senses, the axons leaving the sensory receptors have a topographical arrangement, meaning that the location of the sensory receptor relates to the location of the axon in the nerve. In the retina, for example, axons from RGCs in the fovea are located at the centre of the optic nerve, where they are surrounded by axons from the more peripheral RGCs.

Spinal Nerves

Generally, spinal nerves contain afferent axons from sensory receptors in the periphery, such as from the skin, mixed with efferent axons travelling to the muscles or other effector organs. As the spinal nerve nears the spinal cord, it splits into dorsal and ventral roots. The dorsal root contains only the axons of sensory neurons, whereas the ventral roots contain only the axons of the motor neurons. Some of the branches will synapse with local neurons in the dorsal root ganglion, posterior (dorsal) horn, or even the anterior (ventral) horn, at the level of the spinal cord where they enter. Other branches will travel a short distance up or down the spine to interact with neurons at other levels of the spinal cord. A branch may also turn into the posterior (dorsal) column of the white matter to connect with the brain. For the sake of convenience, we will use the terms ventral and dorsal in reference to structures within the spinal cord that are part of these pathways. This will help to underscore the relationships between the different components. Typically, spinal nerve systems that connect to the brain are contralateral, in that the right side of the body is connected to the left side of the brain and the left side of the body to the right side of the brain.

Cranial Nerves

Cranial nerves convey specific sensory information from the head and neck directly to the brain. For sensations below the neck, the right side of the body is connected to the left side of the brain and the left side of the body to the right side of the brain. Whereas spinal information is contralateral, cranial nerve systems are mostly ipsilateral, meaning that a cranial nerve on the right side of the head is connected to the right side of the brain. Some cranial nerves contain only sensory axons, such as the olfactory, optic, and vestibulocochlear nerves. Other cranial nerves contain both sensory and motor axons, including the trigeminal, facial, glossopharyngeal, and vagus nerves (however, the vagus nerve is not associated with the somatic nervous system). The general senses of somatosensation for the face travel through the trigeminal system.

Section Review

The senses are olfaction (smell), gustation (taste), somatosensation (sensations associated with the skin and body), audition (hearing), equilibrium (balance), and vision. Except for somatosensation, this list represents the special senses, or those systems of the body that are associated with specific organs such as the tongue or eye. Somatosensation belongs to the general senses, which are those sensory structures that are distributed throughout the body and in the walls of various organs. The special senses are all primarily part of the somatic nervous system in that they are consciously perceived through cerebral processes, though some special senses contribute to autonomic function. The general senses can be divided into somatosensation, which is commonly considered touch, but includes tactile, pressure, vibration, temperature, and pain perception. The general senses also include the visceral senses, which are separate from the somatic nervous system function in that they do not normally rise to the level of conscious perception.

The cells that transduce sensory stimuli into the electrochemical signals of the nervous system are classified based on structural or functional aspects of the cells. The structural classifications are either based on the anatomy of the cell that is interacting with the stimulus (free nerve endings, encapsulated endings, or specialised receptor cell), or where the cell is located relative to the stimulus (interoceptor, exteroceptor, proprioceptor). Thirdly, the functional classification is based on how the cell transduces the stimulus into a neural signal. Chemoreceptors respond to chemical stimuli and are the basis for olfaction and gustation. Related to chemoreceptors are osmoreceptors and nociceptors for fluid balance and pain reception, respectively. Mechanoreceptors respond to mechanical stimuli and are the basis for most aspects of somatosensation, as well as being the basis of audition and equilibrium in the inner ear. Thermoreceptors are sensitive to temperature changes, and photoreceptors are sensitive to light energy.

The nerves that convey sensory information from the periphery to the CNS are either spinal nerves, connected to the spinal cord, or cranial nerves, connected to the brain. Spinal nerves have mixed populations of fibres; some are motor fibres and some are sensory. The sensory fibres connect to the spinal cord through the dorsal root, which is attached to the dorsal root ganglion. Sensory information from the body that is conveyed through spinal nerves will project to the opposite side of the brain to be processed by the cerebral cortex. The cranial nerves can be strictly sensory fibres, such as the olfactory, optic, and vestibulocochlear nerves, or mixed sensory and motor nerves, such as the trigeminal, facial, glossopharyngeal, and vagus nerves. The cranial nerves are connected to the same side of the brain from which the sensory information originates.

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