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Biology 2e

36.2 Somatosensation

Biology 2e36.2 Somatosensation
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  1. Preface
  2. The Chemistry of Life
    1. 1 The Study of Life
      1. Introduction
      2. 1.1 The Science of Biology
      3. 1.2 Themes and Concepts of Biology
      4. Key Terms
      5. Chapter Summary
      6. Visual Connection Questions
      7. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 2 The Chemical Foundation of Life
      1. Introduction
      2. 2.1 Atoms, Isotopes, Ions, and Molecules: The Building Blocks
      3. 2.2 Water
      4. 2.3 Carbon
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 3 Biological Macromolecules
      1. Introduction
      2. 3.1 Synthesis of Biological Macromolecules
      3. 3.2 Carbohydrates
      4. 3.3 Lipids
      5. 3.4 Proteins
      6. 3.5 Nucleic Acids
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
  3. The Cell
    1. 4 Cell Structure
      1. Introduction
      2. 4.1 Studying Cells
      3. 4.2 Prokaryotic Cells
      4. 4.3 Eukaryotic Cells
      5. 4.4 The Endomembrane System and Proteins
      6. 4.5 The Cytoskeleton
      7. 4.6 Connections between Cells and Cellular Activities
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Summary
      10. Visual Connection Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 5 Structure and Function of Plasma Membranes
      1. Introduction
      2. 5.1 Components and Structure
      3. 5.2 Passive Transport
      4. 5.3 Active Transport
      5. 5.4 Bulk Transport
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 6 Metabolism
      1. Introduction
      2. 6.1 Energy and Metabolism
      3. 6.2 Potential, Kinetic, Free, and Activation Energy
      4. 6.3 The Laws of Thermodynamics
      5. 6.4 ATP: Adenosine Triphosphate
      6. 6.5 Enzymes
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 7 Cellular Respiration
      1. Introduction
      2. 7.1 Energy in Living Systems
      3. 7.2 Glycolysis
      4. 7.3 Oxidation of Pyruvate and the Citric Acid Cycle
      5. 7.4 Oxidative Phosphorylation
      6. 7.5 Metabolism without Oxygen
      7. 7.6 Connections of Carbohydrate, Protein, and Lipid Metabolic Pathways
      8. 7.7 Regulation of Cellular Respiration
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 8 Photosynthesis
      1. Introduction
      2. 8.1 Overview of Photosynthesis
      3. 8.2 The Light-Dependent Reactions of Photosynthesis
      4. 8.3 Using Light Energy to Make Organic Molecules
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    6. 9 Cell Communication
      1. Introduction
      2. 9.1 Signaling Molecules and Cellular Receptors
      3. 9.2 Propagation of the Signal
      4. 9.3 Response to the Signal
      5. 9.4 Signaling in Single-Celled Organisms
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    7. 10 Cell Reproduction
      1. Introduction
      2. 10.1 Cell Division
      3. 10.2 The Cell Cycle
      4. 10.3 Control of the Cell Cycle
      5. 10.4 Cancer and the Cell Cycle
      6. 10.5 Prokaryotic Cell Division
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
  4. Genetics
    1. 11 Meiosis and Sexual Reproduction
      1. Introduction
      2. 11.1 The Process of Meiosis
      3. 11.2 Sexual Reproduction
      4. Key Terms
      5. Chapter Summary
      6. Visual Connection Questions
      7. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 12 Mendel's Experiments and Heredity
      1. Introduction
      2. 12.1 Mendel’s Experiments and the Laws of Probability
      3. 12.2 Characteristics and Traits
      4. 12.3 Laws of Inheritance
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 13 Modern Understandings of Inheritance
      1. Introduction
      2. 13.1 Chromosomal Theory and Genetic Linkage
      3. 13.2 Chromosomal Basis of Inherited Disorders
      4. Key Terms
      5. Chapter Summary
      6. Visual Connection Questions
      7. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 14 DNA Structure and Function
      1. Introduction
      2. 14.1 Historical Basis of Modern Understanding
      3. 14.2 DNA Structure and Sequencing
      4. 14.3 Basics of DNA Replication
      5. 14.4 DNA Replication in Prokaryotes
      6. 14.5 DNA Replication in Eukaryotes
      7. 14.6 DNA Repair
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Summary
      10. Visual Connection Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 15 Genes and Proteins
      1. Introduction
      2. 15.1 The Genetic Code
      3. 15.2 Prokaryotic Transcription
      4. 15.3 Eukaryotic Transcription
      5. 15.4 RNA Processing in Eukaryotes
      6. 15.5 Ribosomes and Protein Synthesis
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    6. 16 Gene Expression
      1. Introduction
      2. 16.1 Regulation of Gene Expression
      3. 16.2 Prokaryotic Gene Regulation
      4. 16.3 Eukaryotic Epigenetic Gene Regulation
      5. 16.4 Eukaryotic Transcription Gene Regulation
      6. 16.5 Eukaryotic Post-transcriptional Gene Regulation
      7. 16.6 Eukaryotic Translational and Post-translational Gene Regulation
      8. 16.7 Cancer and Gene Regulation
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    7. 17 Biotechnology and Genomics
      1. Introduction
      2. 17.1 Biotechnology
      3. 17.2 Mapping Genomes
      4. 17.3 Whole-Genome Sequencing
      5. 17.4 Applying Genomics
      6. 17.5 Genomics and Proteomics
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
  5. Evolutionary Processes
    1. 18 Evolution and the Origin of Species
      1. Introduction
      2. 18.1 Understanding Evolution
      3. 18.2 Formation of New Species
      4. 18.3 Reconnection and Speciation Rates
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 19 The Evolution of Populations
      1. Introduction
      2. 19.1 Population Evolution
      3. 19.2 Population Genetics
      4. 19.3 Adaptive Evolution
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 20 Phylogenies and the History of Life
      1. Introduction
      2. 20.1 Organizing Life on Earth
      3. 20.2 Determining Evolutionary Relationships
      4. 20.3 Perspectives on the Phylogenetic Tree
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
  6. Biological Diversity
    1. 21 Viruses
      1. Introduction
      2. 21.1 Viral Evolution, Morphology, and Classification
      3. 21.2 Virus Infections and Hosts
      4. 21.3 Prevention and Treatment of Viral Infections
      5. 21.4 Other Acellular Entities: Prions and Viroids
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 22 Prokaryotes: Bacteria and Archaea
      1. Introduction
      2. 22.1 Prokaryotic Diversity
      3. 22.2 Structure of Prokaryotes: Bacteria and Archaea
      4. 22.3 Prokaryotic Metabolism
      5. 22.4 Bacterial Diseases in Humans
      6. 22.5 Beneficial Prokaryotes
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 23 Protists
      1. Introduction
      2. 23.1 Eukaryotic Origins
      3. 23.2 Characteristics of Protists
      4. 23.3 Groups of Protists
      5. 23.4 Ecology of Protists
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 24 Fungi
      1. Introduction
      2. 24.1 Characteristics of Fungi
      3. 24.2 Classifications of Fungi
      4. 24.3 Ecology of Fungi
      5. 24.4 Fungal Parasites and Pathogens
      6. 24.5 Importance of Fungi in Human Life
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 25 Seedless Plants
      1. Introduction
      2. 25.1 Early Plant Life
      3. 25.2 Green Algae: Precursors of Land Plants
      4. 25.3 Bryophytes
      5. 25.4 Seedless Vascular Plants
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    6. 26 Seed Plants
      1. Introduction
      2. 26.1 Evolution of Seed Plants
      3. 26.2 Gymnosperms
      4. 26.3 Angiosperms
      5. 26.4 The Role of Seed Plants
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    7. 27 Introduction to Animal Diversity
      1. Introduction
      2. 27.1 Features of the Animal Kingdom
      3. 27.2 Features Used to Classify Animals
      4. 27.3 Animal Phylogeny
      5. 27.4 The Evolutionary History of the Animal Kingdom
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    8. 28 Invertebrates
      1. Introduction
      2. 28.1 Phylum Porifera
      3. 28.2 Phylum Cnidaria
      4. 28.3 Superphylum Lophotrochozoa: Flatworms, Rotifers, and Nemerteans
      5. 28.4 Superphylum Lophotrochozoa: Molluscs and Annelids
      6. 28.5 Superphylum Ecdysozoa: Nematodes and Tardigrades
      7. 28.6 Superphylum Ecdysozoa: Arthropods
      8. 28.7 Superphylum Deuterostomia
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. 29 Vertebrates
      1. Introduction
      2. 29.1 Chordates
      3. 29.2 Fishes
      4. 29.3 Amphibians
      5. 29.4 Reptiles
      6. 29.5 Birds
      7. 29.6 Mammals
      8. 29.7 The Evolution of Primates
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
  7. Plant Structure and Function
    1. 30 Plant Form and Physiology
      1. Introduction
      2. 30.1 The Plant Body
      3. 30.2 Stems
      4. 30.3 Roots
      5. 30.4 Leaves
      6. 30.5 Transport of Water and Solutes in Plants
      7. 30.6 Plant Sensory Systems and Responses
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Summary
      10. Visual Connection Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 31 Soil and Plant Nutrition
      1. Introduction
      2. 31.1 Nutritional Requirements of Plants
      3. 31.2 The Soil
      4. 31.3 Nutritional Adaptations of Plants
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 32 Plant Reproduction
      1. Introduction
      2. 32.1 Reproductive Development and Structure
      3. 32.2 Pollination and Fertilization
      4. 32.3 Asexual Reproduction
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
  8. Animal Structure and Function
    1. 33 The Animal Body: Basic Form and Function
      1. Introduction
      2. 33.1 Animal Form and Function
      3. 33.2 Animal Primary Tissues
      4. 33.3 Homeostasis
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 34 Animal Nutrition and the Digestive System
      1. Introduction
      2. 34.1 Digestive Systems
      3. 34.2 Nutrition and Energy Production
      4. 34.3 Digestive System Processes
      5. 34.4 Digestive System Regulation
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 35 The Nervous System
      1. Introduction
      2. 35.1 Neurons and Glial Cells
      3. 35.2 How Neurons Communicate
      4. 35.3 The Central Nervous System
      5. 35.4 The Peripheral Nervous System
      6. 35.5 Nervous System Disorders
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 36 Sensory Systems
      1. Introduction
      2. 36.1 Sensory Processes
      3. 36.2 Somatosensation
      4. 36.3 Taste and Smell
      5. 36.4 Hearing and Vestibular Sensation
      6. 36.5 Vision
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 37 The Endocrine System
      1. Introduction
      2. 37.1 Types of Hormones
      3. 37.2 How Hormones Work
      4. 37.3 Regulation of Body Processes
      5. 37.4 Regulation of Hormone Production
      6. 37.5 Endocrine Glands
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    6. 38 The Musculoskeletal System
      1. Introduction
      2. 38.1 Types of Skeletal Systems
      3. 38.2 Bone
      4. 38.3 Joints and Skeletal Movement
      5. 38.4 Muscle Contraction and Locomotion
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    7. 39 The Respiratory System
      1. Introduction
      2. 39.1 Systems of Gas Exchange
      3. 39.2 Gas Exchange across Respiratory Surfaces
      4. 39.3 Breathing
      5. 39.4 Transport of Gases in Human Bodily Fluids
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    8. 40 The Circulatory System
      1. Introduction
      2. 40.1 Overview of the Circulatory System
      3. 40.2 Components of the Blood
      4. 40.3 Mammalian Heart and Blood Vessels
      5. 40.4 Blood Flow and Blood Pressure Regulation
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. 41 Osmotic Regulation and Excretion
      1. Introduction
      2. 41.1 Osmoregulation and Osmotic Balance
      3. 41.2 The Kidneys and Osmoregulatory Organs
      4. 41.3 Excretion Systems
      5. 41.4 Nitrogenous Wastes
      6. 41.5 Hormonal Control of Osmoregulatory Functions
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. 42 The Immune System
      1. Introduction
      2. 42.1 Innate Immune Response
      3. 42.2 Adaptive Immune Response
      4. 42.3 Antibodies
      5. 42.4 Disruptions in the Immune System
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. 43 Animal Reproduction and Development
      1. Introduction
      2. 43.1 Reproduction Methods
      3. 43.2 Fertilization
      4. 43.3 Human Reproductive Anatomy and Gametogenesis
      5. 43.4 Hormonal Control of Human Reproduction
      6. 43.5 Human Pregnancy and Birth
      7. 43.6 Fertilization and Early Embryonic Development
      8. 43.7 Organogenesis and Vertebrate Formation
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
  9. Ecology
    1. 44 Ecology and the Biosphere
      1. Introduction
      2. 44.1 The Scope of Ecology
      3. 44.2 Biogeography
      4. 44.3 Terrestrial Biomes
      5. 44.4 Aquatic Biomes
      6. 44.5 Climate and the Effects of Global Climate Change
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 45 Population and Community Ecology
      1. Introduction
      2. 45.1 Population Demography
      3. 45.2 Life Histories and Natural Selection
      4. 45.3 Environmental Limits to Population Growth
      5. 45.4 Population Dynamics and Regulation
      6. 45.5 Human Population Growth
      7. 45.6 Community Ecology
      8. 45.7 Behavioral Biology: Proximate and Ultimate Causes of Behavior
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 46 Ecosystems
      1. Introduction
      2. 46.1 Ecology of Ecosystems
      3. 46.2 Energy Flow through Ecosystems
      4. 46.3 Biogeochemical Cycles
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 47 Conservation Biology and Biodiversity
      1. Introduction
      2. 47.1 The Biodiversity Crisis
      3. 47.2 The Importance of Biodiversity to Human Life
      4. 47.3 Threats to Biodiversity
      5. 47.4 Preserving Biodiversity
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
  10. A | The Periodic Table of Elements
  11. B | Geological Time
  12. C | Measurements and the Metric System
  13. Index
By the end of this section, you will be able to do the following:
  • Describe four important mechanoreceptors in human skin
  • Describe the topographical distribution of somatosensory receptors between glabrous and hairy skin
  • Explain why the perception of pain is subjective

Somatosensation is a mixed sensory category and includes all sensation received from the skin and mucous membranes, as well from as the limbs and joints. Somatosensation is also known as tactile sense, or more familiarly, as the sense of touch. Somatosensation occurs all over the exterior of the body and at some interior locations as well. A variety of receptor types—embedded in the skin, mucous membranes, muscles, joints, internal organs, and cardiovascular system—play a role.

Recall that the epidermis is the outermost layer of skin in mammals. It is relatively thin, is composed of keratin-filled cells, and has no blood supply. The epidermis serves as a barrier to water and to invasion by pathogens. Below this, the much thicker dermis contains blood vessels, sweat glands, hair follicles, lymph vessels, and lipid-secreting sebaceous glands (Figure 36.4). Below the epidermis and dermis is the subcutaneous tissue, or hypodermis, the fatty layer that contains blood vessels, connective tissue, and the axons of sensory neurons. The hypodermis, which holds about 50 percent of the body’s fat, attaches the dermis to the bone and muscle, and supplies nerves and blood vessels to the dermis.

Illustration shows a cross section of mammalian skin. The outer epidermis is a thin layer, smooth on the outside. The middle dermis is much thicker than the epedermis. Blood, nerve and lymph vessels run along the bottom of it, and smaller capillaries and nerve endings extend to the upper part. One nerve ends in a receptor. Sweat glands extend from the dermis into the epidermis. Hair follicles extend from the base of the dermis to the upper part where they are joined by oil glands. Hairs extend from the follicles, through the epidermis and out of the skin. The hypodermis is a fatty layer beneath the dermis, below the blood vessels, and bases of the hair follicles.
Figure 36.4 Mammalian skin has three layers: an epidermis, a dermis, and a hypodermis. (credit: modification of work by Don Bliss, National Cancer Institute)

Somatosensory Receptors

Sensory receptors are classified into five categories: mechanoreceptors, thermoreceptors, proprioceptors, pain receptors, and chemoreceptors. These categories are based on the nature of stimuli each receptor class transduces. What is commonly referred to as “touch” involves more than one kind of stimulus and more than one kind of receptor. Mechanoreceptors in the skin are described as encapsulated (that is, surrounded by a capsule) or unencapsulated (a group that includes free nerve endings). A free nerve ending, as its name implies, is an unencapsulated dendrite of a sensory neuron. Free nerve endings are the most common nerve endings in skin, and they extend into the middle of the epidermis. Free nerve endings are sensitive to painful stimuli, to hot and cold, and to light touch. They are slow to adjust to a stimulus and so are less sensitive to abrupt changes in stimulation.

There are three classes of mechanoreceptors: tactile, proprioceptors, and baroreceptors. Mechanoreceptors sense stimuli due to physical deformation of their plasma membranes. They contain mechanically gated ion channels whose gates open or close in response to pressure, touch, stretching, and sound.” There are four primary tactile mechanoreceptors in human skin: Merkel’s disks, Meissner’s corpuscles, Ruffini endings, and Pacinian corpuscles; two are located toward the surface of the skin and two are located deeper. A fifth type of mechanoreceptor, Krause end bulbs, are found only in specialized regions. Merkel’s disks (shown in Figure 36.5) are found in the upper layers of skin near the base of the epidermis, both in skin that has hair and on glabrous skin, that is, the hairless skin found on the palms and fingers, the soles of the feet, and the lips of humans and other primates. Merkel’s disks are densely distributed in the fingertips and lips. They are slow-adapting, encapsulated nerve endings, and they respond to light touch. Light touch, also known as discriminative touch, is a light pressure that allows the location of a stimulus to be pinpointed. The receptive fields of Merkel’s disks are small with well-defined borders. That makes them finely sensitive to edges and they come into use in tasks such as typing on a keyboard.

Visual Connection

Illustration shows the location of various mechanoreceptors in a cross section of the epidermis and dermis. A nerve runs along the middle of the dermis, and all the mechanoreceptors are connected to it. Ruffini endings, Merkel’s disks, and Meissners corpuscles are all located in the upper dermis above the nerve. Ruffini endings are bulbous, horizontal mechanoreceptors located in the middle of the upper dermis. Meissners corpuscles are bulbous, vertical mechanoreceptors that touch the bottom of the epidermis. Merkels disks have finger-like projections that also touch the bottom of the epidermis. The last type of mechanoreceptor, Pacini corpuscles, are oval mechanoreceptors located in the lower dermis.
Figure 36.5 Four of the primary mechanoreceptors in human skin are shown. Merkel’s disks, which are unencapsulated, respond to light touch. Meissner’s corpuscles, Ruffini endings, Pacinian corpuscles, and Krause end bulbs are all encapsulated. Meissner’s corpuscles respond to touch and low-frequency vibration. Ruffini endings detect stretch, deformation within joints, and warmth. Pacinian corpuscles detect transient pressure and high-frequency vibration. Krause end bulbs detect cold.

Which of the following statements about mechanoreceptors is false?

  1. Pacinian corpuscles are found in both glabrous and hairy skin.
  2. Merkel’s disks are abundant on the fingertips and lips.
  3. Ruffini endings are encapsulated mechanoreceptors.
  4. Meissner’s corpuscles extend into the lower dermis.

Meissner’s corpuscles, (shown in Figure 36.6) also known as tactile corpuscles, are found in the upper dermis, but they project into the epidermis. They, too, are found primarily in the glabrous skin on the fingertips and eyelids. They respond to fine touch and pressure, but they also respond to low-frequency vibration or flutter. They are rapidly adapting, fluid-filled, encapsulated neurons with small, well-defined borders and are responsive to fine details. Like Merkel’s disks, Meissner’s corpuscles are not as plentiful in the palms as they are in the fingertips.

Micrograph shows the epidermis, which stains dark pink and the dermis, which stains light pink. Finger-like projections of epidermis extend into the dermis. Between two of these finger like projections is an oval Meissner corpuscle about ten microns across and 20 microns long.
Figure 36.6 Meissner corpuscles in the fingertips, such as the one viewed here using bright field light microscopy, allow for touch discrimination of fine detail. (credit: modification of work by "Wbensmith"/Wikimedia Commons; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Deeper in the epidermis, near the base, are Ruffini endings, which are also known as bulbous corpuscles. They are found in both glabrous and hairy skin. These are slow-adapting, encapsulated mechanoreceptors that detect skin stretch and deformations within joints, so they provide valuable feedback for gripping objects and controlling finger position and movement. Thus, they also contribute to proprioception and kinesthesia. Ruffini endings also detect warmth. Note that these warmth detectors are situated deeper in the skin than are the cold detectors. It is not surprising, then, that humans detect cold stimuli before they detect warm stimuli.

Pacinian corpuscles (seen in Figure 36.7) are located deep in the dermis of both glabrous and hairy skin and are structurally similar to Meissner’s corpuscles; they are found in the bone periosteum, joint capsules, pancreas and other viscera, breast, and genitals. They are rapidly adapting mechanoreceptors that sense deep transient (but not prolonged) pressure and high-frequency vibration. Pacinian receptors detect pressure and vibration by being compressed, stimulating their internal dendrites. There are fewer Pacinian corpuscles and Ruffini endings in skin than there are Merkel’s disks and Meissner’s corpuscles.

Micrograph shows three Pacinian corpuscles embedded in the dermis. The corpuscles are round and about 1.4 millimeters across and have rings, like a tree stump.
Figure 36.7 Pacinian corpuscles, such as these visualized using bright field light microscopy, detect pressure (touch) and high-frequency vibration. (credit: modification of work by Ed Uthman; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

In proprioception, proprioceptive and kinesthetic signals travel through myelinated afferent neurons running from the spinal cord to the medulla. Neurons are not physically connected, but communicate via neurotransmitters secreted into synapses or “gaps” between communicating neurons. Once in the medulla, the neurons continue carrying the signals to the thalamus.

Muscle spindles are stretch receptors that detect the amount of stretch, or lengthening of muscles. Related to these are Golgi tendon organs, which are tension receptors that detect the force of muscle contraction. Proprioceptive and kinesthetic signals come from limbs. Unconscious proprioceptive signals run from the spinal cord to the cerebellum, the brain region that coordinates muscle contraction, rather than to the thalamus, like most other sensory information.

Baroreceptors detect pressure changes in an organ. They are found in the walls of the carotid artery and the aorta where they monitor blood pressure, and in the lungs where they detect the degree of lung expansion. Stretch receptors are found at various sites in the digestive and urinary systems.

In addition to these two types of deeper receptors, there are also rapidly adapting hair receptors, which are found on nerve endings that wrap around the base of hair follicles. There are a few types of hair receptors that detect slow and rapid hair movement, and they differ in their sensitivity to movement. Some hair receptors also detect skin deflection, and certain rapidly adapting hair receptors allow detection of stimuli that have not yet touched the skin.

Integration of Signals from Mechanoreceptors

The configuration of the different types of receptors working in concert in human skin results in a very refined sense of touch. The nociceptive receptors—those that detect pain—are located near the surface. Small, finely calibrated mechanoreceptors—Merkel’s disks and Meissner’s corpuscles—are located in the upper layers and can precisely localize even gentle touch. The large mechanoreceptors—Pacinian corpuscles and Ruffini endings—are located in the lower layers and respond to deeper touch. (Consider that the deep pressure that reaches those deeper receptors would not need to be finely localized.) Both the upper and lower layers of the skin hold rapidly and slowly adapting receptors. Both primary somatosensory cortex and secondary cortical areas are responsible for processing the complex picture of stimuli transmitted from the interplay of mechanoreceptors.

Density of Mechanoreceptors

The distribution of touch receptors in human skin is not consistent over the body. In humans, touch receptors are less dense in skin covered with any type of hair, such as the arms, legs, torso, and face. Touch receptors are denser in glabrous skin (the type found on human fingertips and lips, for example), which is typically more sensitive and is thicker than hairy skin (4 to 5 mm versus 2 to 3 mm).

How is receptor density estimated in a human subject? The relative density of pressure receptors in different locations on the body can be demonstrated experimentally using a two-point discrimination test. In this demonstration, two sharp points, such as two thumbtacks, are brought into contact with the subject’s skin (though not hard enough to cause pain or break the skin). The subject reports if he or she feels one point or two points. If the two points are felt as one point, it can be inferred that the two points are both in the receptive field of a single sensory receptor. If two points are felt as two separate points, each is in the receptive field of two separate sensory receptors. The points could then be moved closer and retested until the subject reports feeling only one point, and the size of the receptive field of a single receptor could be estimated from that distance.

Thermoreception

In addition to Krause end bulbs that detect cold and Ruffini endings that detect warmth, there are different types of cold receptors on some free nerve endings: thermoreceptors, located in the dermis, skeletal muscles, liver, and hypothalamus, that are activated by different temperatures. Their pathways into the brain run from the spinal cord through the thalamus to the primary somatosensory cortex. Warmth and cold information from the face travels through one of the cranial nerves to the brain. You know from experience that a tolerably cold or hot stimulus can quickly progress to a much more intense stimulus that is no longer tolerable. Any stimulus that is too intense can be perceived as pain because temperature sensations are conducted along the same pathways that carry pain sensations.

Pain

Pain is the name given to nociception, which is the neural processing of injurious stimuli in response to tissue damage. Pain is caused by true sources of injury, such as contact with a heat source that causes a thermal burn or contact with a corrosive chemical. But pain also can be caused by harmless stimuli that mimic the action of damaging stimuli, such as contact with capsaicins, the compounds that cause peppers to taste hot and which are used in self-defense pepper sprays and certain topical medications. Peppers taste “hot” because the protein receptors that bind capsaicin open the same calcium channels that are activated by warm receptors.

Nociception starts at the sensory receptors, but pain, inasmuch as it is the perception of nociception, does not start until it is communicated to the brain. There are several nociceptive pathways to and through the brain. Most axons carrying nociceptive information into the brain from the spinal cord project to the thalamus (as do other sensory neurons) and the neural signal undergoes final processing in the primary somatosensory cortex. Interestingly, one nociceptive pathway projects not to the thalamus but directly to the hypothalamus in the forebrain, which modulates the cardiovascular and neuroendocrine functions of the autonomic nervous system. Recall that threatening—or painful—stimuli stimulate the sympathetic branch of the visceral sensory system, readying a fight-or-flight response.

Link to Learning

View this video that animates the five phases of nociceptive pain.

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