The ability to identify tactile objects depends in part on the perception of their surface microstructure and material properties. Texture perception can, on a first approximation, be described by a number of nameable perceptual axes, such as rough/smooth, hard/soft, sticky/slippery, and warm/cool, which exist within a complex perceptual space. The perception of texture relies on two different neural streams of information: Coarser features, measured in millimeters, are primarily encoded by spatial patterns of activity across one population of tactile nerve fibers, while finer features, down to the micron level, are encoded by finely timed temporal patterns within two other populations of afferents. These two streams of information ascend the somatosensory neuraxis and are eventually combined and further elaborated in the cortex to yield a high-dimensional representation that accounts for our exquisite and stable perception of texture.
Justin D. Lieber and Sliman J. Bensmaia
Tamar Makin and London Plasticity Lab
Phantom sensations are experienced by almost every person who has lost their hand in adulthood. This mysterious phenomenon spans the full range of bodily sensations, including the sense of touch, temperature, movement, and even the sense of wetness. For a majority of upper-limb amputees, these sensations will also be at times unpleasant, painful, and for some even excruciating to the point of debilitating, causing a serious clinical problem, termed phantom limb pain (PLP). Considering the sensory organs (the receptors in the skin, muscle or tendon) are physically missing, in order to understand the origins of phantom sensations and pain the potential causes must be studied at the level of the nervous system, and the brain in particular. This raises the question of what happens to a fully developed part of the brain that becomes functionally redundant (e.g. the sensorimotor hand area after arm amputation). Relatedly, what happens to the brain representation of a body part that becomes overused (e.g. the intact hand, on which most amputees heavily rely for completing daily tasks)? Classical studies in animals show that the brain territory in primary somatosensory cortex (S1) that was “freed up” due to input loss (hereafter deprivation) becomes activated by other body part representations, those neighboring the deprived cortex. If neural resources in the deprived hand area get redistributed to facilitate the representation of other body parts following amputation, how does this process relate to persistent phantom sensation arising from the amputated hand? Subsequent work in humans, mostly with noninvasive neuroimaging and brain stimulation techniques, have expanded on the initial observations of cortical remapping in two important ways. First, research with humans allows us to study the perceptual consequence of remapping, particularly with regards to phantom sensations and pain. Second, by considering the various compensatory strategies amputees adopt in order to account for their disability, including overuse of their intact hand and learning to use an artificial limb, use-dependent plasticity can also be studied in amputees, as well as its relationship to deprivation-triggered plasticity. Both of these topics are of great clinical value, as these could inform clinicians how to treat PLP, and how to facilitate rehabilitation and prosthesis usage in particular. Moreover, research in humans provides new insight into the role of remapping and persistent representation in facilitating (or hindering) the realization of emerging technologies for artificial limb devices, with special emphasis on the role of embodiment. Together, this research affords a more comprehensive outlook at the functional consequences of cortical remapping in amputees’ primary sensorimotor cortex.
Jose M. Alonso and Harvey A. Swadlow
The thalamocortical pathway is the main route of sensory information to the cerebral cortex. Vision, touch, hearing, taste, and balance all depend on the integrity of this pathway that connects the thalamic structures receiving sensory input with the cortical areas specialized in each sensory modality. Only the ancient sense of smell is independent of the thalamus, gaining access to cortex through more anterior routes. While the thalamocortical pathway targets different layers of the cerebral cortex, its main stream projects to the middle layers and has axon terminals that are dense, spatially restricted, and highly specific in their connections. The remarkable specificity of these thalamocortical connections allows for a precise reconstruction of the sensory dimensions that need to be most finely sampled, such as spatial acuity in vision and sound frequency in hearing. The thalamic axon terminals also segregate topographically according to their stimulus preferences, providing a simple principle to build cortical sensory maps: neighboring values in sensory space are represented by neighboring points within the cortex. Thalamocortical processing is not static. It is continuously modulated by the brain stem and corticothalamic feedback based on the level of attention and alertness, and during sleep or general anesthesia. When alert, visual thalamic responses become stronger, more reliable, more sustained, more effective at sampling fast changes in the scene, and more linearly related to the stimulus. The high firing rates of the alert state make thalamocortical synapses chronically depressed and excitatory synaptic potentials less dependent on temporal history, improving even further the linear relation between stimulus and response. In turn, when alertness wanes, the thalamus reduces its firing rate, and starts generating spike bursts that drive large postsynaptic responses and keep the cortex responsive to sudden stimulus changes.
Mathew H. Evans, Michaela S.E. Loft, Dario Campagner, and Rasmus S. Petersen
Whiskers (vibrissae) are prominent on the snout of many mammals, both terrestrial and aquatic. The defining feature of whiskers is that they are rooted in large follicles with dense sensory innervation, surrounded by doughnut-shaped blood sinuses. Some species, including rats and mice, have elaborate muscular control of their whiskers and explore their environment by making rhythmic back-and-forth “whisking” movements. Whisking movements are purposefully modulated according to specific behavioral goals (“active sensing”). The basic whisking rhythm is controlled by a premotor complex in the intermediate reticular formation. Primary whisker neurons (PWNs), with cell bodies in the trigeminal ganglion, innervate several classes of mechanoreceptive nerve endings in the whisker follicle. Mechanotransduction involving Piezo2 ion channels establishes the fundamental physical signals that the whiskers communicate to the brain. PWN spikes are triggered by mechanical forces associated with both the whisking motion itself and whisker-object contact. Whisking is associated with inertial and muscle contraction forces that drive PWN activity. Whisker-object contact causes whiskers to bend, and PWN activity is driven primarily by the associated rotatory force (“bending moment”). Sensory signals from the PWNs are routed to many parts of the hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain. Parallel ascending pathways transmit information about whisker forces to sensorimotor cortex. At each brainstem, thalamic, and cortical level of these pathways, there are one or more maps of the whisker array, consisting of cell clusters (“barrels” in the primary somatosensory cortex) whose spatial arrangement precisely mirrors that of the whiskers on the snout. However, the overall architecture of the whisker-responsive regions of the brain system is best characterized by multilevel sensory-motor feedback loops. Its intriguing biology, in combination with advantageous properties as a model sensory system, has made the whisker system the platform for seminal insights into brain function.
Jon H. Kaas
Early mammals were small with little neocortex that included a somatosensory system with a mediolateral strip of primary somatosensory cortex and three or four adjoining somatosensory fields. As early mammals radiated out and adapted to local environments, their somatosensory systems adjusted and became specialized in many ways. Most of these specializations were most obvious as disproportionally enlarged representations of important sensory surfaces of the skin in primary somatosensory cortex. These enlarged representations included those of the bill of the duckbilled platypus, the nose of the star-nosed mole, the teeth and tongue of monkeys, the glabrous hand of raccoons, the wing of bats, and the tactile tail of some monkeys. These and other specializations enhanced the ability of these mammals to adapt to their environments and to precisely evaluate relevant sensory events and make appropriate behavioral adjustments.