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14.1 Sensory Perception

The senses are olfaction (smell), gustation (taste), somatosensation (sensations associated with the skin and body), audition (hearing), equilibrium (balance), and vision. With the exception of 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 on the basis of 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 specialized 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 fibers; some are motor fibers and some are sensory. The sensory fibers 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 fibers, 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.

14.2 Central Processing

Sensory input to the brain enters through pathways that travel through either the spinal cord (for somatosensory input from the body) or the brain stem (for everything else, except the visual and olfactory systems) to reach the diencephalon. In the diencephalon, sensory pathways reach the thalamus. This is necessary for all sensory systems to reach the cerebral cortex, except for the olfactory system that is directly connected to the frontal and temporal lobes.

The two major tracts in the spinal cord, originating from sensory neurons in the dorsal root ganglia, are the dorsal column system and the spinothalamic tract. The major differences between the two are in the type of information that is relayed to the brain and where the tracts decussate. The dorsal column system primarily carries information about touch and proprioception and crosses the midline in the medulla. The spinothalamic tract is primarily responsible for pain and temperature sensation and crosses the midline in the spinal cord at the level at which it enters. The trigeminal nerve adds similar sensation information from the head to these pathways.

The auditory pathway passes through multiple nuclei in the brain stem in which additional information is extracted from the basic frequency stimuli processed by the cochlea. Sound localization is made possible through the activity of these brain stem structures. The vestibular system enters the brain stem and influences activity in the cerebellum, spinal cord, and cerebral cortex.

The visual pathway segregates information from the two eyes so that one half of the visual field projects to the other side of the brain. Within visual cortical areas, the perception of the stimuli and their location is passed along two streams, one ventral and one dorsal. The ventral visual stream connects to structures in the temporal lobe that are important for long-term memory formation. The dorsal visual stream interacts with the somatosensory cortex in the parietal lobe, and together they can influence the activity in the frontal lobe to generate movements of the body in relation to visual information.

14.3 Motor Responses

The motor components of the somatic nervous system begin with the frontal lobe of the brain, where the prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher functions such as working memory. The integrative and associate functions of the prefrontal lobe feed into the secondary motor areas, which help plan movements. The premotor cortex and supplemental motor area then feed into the primary motor cortex that initiates movements. Large Betz cells project through the corticobulbar and corticospinal tracts to synapse on lower motor neurons in the brain stem and ventral horn of the spinal cord, respectively. These connections are responsible for generating movements of skeletal muscles.

The extrapyramidal system includes projections from the brain stem and higher centers that influence movement, mostly to maintain balance and posture, as well as to maintain muscle tone. The superior colliculus and red nucleus in the midbrain, the vestibular nuclei in the medulla, and the reticular formation throughout the brain stem each have tracts projecting to the spinal cord in this system. Descending input from the secondary motor cortices, basal nuclei, and cerebellum connect to the origins of these tracts in the brain stem.

All of these motor pathways project to the spinal cord to synapse with motor neurons in the ventral horn of the spinal cord. These lower motor neurons are the cells that connect to skeletal muscle and cause contractions. These neurons project through the spinal nerves to connect to the muscles at neuromuscular junctions. One motor neuron connects to multiple muscle fibers within a target muscle. The number of fibers that are innervated by a single motor neuron varies on the basis of the precision necessary for that muscle and the amount of force necessary for that motor unit. The quadriceps, for example, have many fibers controlled by single motor neurons for powerful contractions that do not need to be precise. The extraocular muscles have only a small number of fibers controlled by each motor neuron because moving the eyes does not require much force, but needs to be very precise.

Reflexes are the simplest circuits within the somatic nervous system. A withdrawal reflex from a painful stimulus only requires the sensory fiber that enters the spinal cord and the motor neuron that projects to a muscle. Antagonist and postural muscles can be coordinated with the withdrawal, making the connections more complex. The simple, single neuronal connection is the basis of somatic reflexes. The corneal reflex is contraction of the orbicularis oculi muscle to blink the eyelid when something touches the surface of the eye. Stretch reflexes maintain a constant length of muscles by causing a contraction of a muscle to compensate for a stretch that can be sensed by a specialized receptor called a muscle spindle.

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