Feel the World: Understanding the Somatosensory Cortex

The somatosensory cortex is a vital component of the human brain that plays a fundamental role in processing sensory information received from different parts of the body. Without the somatosensory cortex, humans wouldn’t be able to feel the warmth of a fire, or smell the aromas of a morning coffee!

In this article, we take a look at the different layers of the somatosensory cortex, its role in our daily lives, and how conditions affecting the somatosensory cortex can impact individual experiences.

What is the somatosensory cortex?

The somatosensory cortex, located in the parietal lobe of the brain, processes sensory information delivered to the brain via the peripheral nervous system. This network of neurons that is the somatosensory cortex is responsible for the sensations of touch, proprioception (awareness of body position), temperature, and pain.

The somatosensory cortex is the brain's central processing unit for converting physical experiences into meaningful perceptions, which enables us to successfully navigate and engage with our surroundings. Given its significance, disorders of the somatosensory cortex have the power to profoundly change how a person experiences the world around them.

As said before, it is situated in the parietal lobe of the brain, which is behind the motor cortex, and is divided into two parts: the primary somatosensory cortex and the secondary somatosensory cortex.

The role of the somatosensory cortex

In the following short story, let’s take a look at just how much of our daily experience relies on the somatosensory cortex.

When Sarah opened her window to let in the warmth of the morning light, her somatosensory cortex registered the sensation of her warm bed sheets against her skin. Her muscles sent signals to her brain as she stretched, directing her actions. She enjoyed the scent of coffee as she walked downstairs, remembering fondly early mornings spent with her partner, and her somatosensory cortex picked up on the warmth of the mug she took in her hands. During her morning run, she felt the rhythm of her feet hitting the pavement, her somatosensory cortex processing each step. Her somatosensory cortex shaped her sensory experience all day long, whether she was hugging her loved ones or typing at her job.

Both the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices work harmoniously to process the sensory inputs picked up by receptors throughout our body. The primary somatosensory cortex directly receives peripheral sensory information, while the secondary somatosensory cortex processes and integrates this sensory input.

The primary somatosensory cortex

The primary somatosensory cortex allows for the sensations of pressure, temperature and pain.

It combines information from several sensory receptors as a component of the somatosensory system, and is essential for processing sensations. Studies indicate that it also has a role in proprioception, which enables us to sense our own body's position and movement.

The primary somatosensory cortex also facilitates more advanced functions such as detecting what you are touching (touch discrimination) and spatial awareness. Its complex network is essential to our sensory experiences since it allows us to move around and engage with the outside world.

The secondary somatosensory cortex

Compared to the primary somatosensory cortex, the secondary somatosensory cortex analyzes sensory inputs more thoroughly.

It improves sensory perception by identifying more complex physical properties of things we touch and contributes to the perceived severity of painful experiences. Additionally, the secondary somatosensory cortex helps to regulate emotions by establishing a connection between sensory information, emotional events, and memory formation.

Health and the somatosensory cortex

Like all regions of the body, the somatosensory cortex can be affected by a variety of health conditions. Sensory processing abnormalities can impact the somatosensory cortex and cause various impairments. These conditions disrupt the brain's ability to appropriately receive, process, and react to sensory information received from the body. Some of the challenges include:

  • Modified perception of sensations. People with sensory processing disorders may experience hyper- or hypo-sensitivity to stimuli, leading them to either overreact or underreact to sensory information.
  • Motor dysfunction. Balance, coordination, and precise movement are all impacted by somatosensory function impairments, which are a contributing factor to the motor dysfunction observed in neurologic disorders.
  • Communication difficulties. Deficits in somatosensory processing have been linked to communication challenges, such as issues with expressive language, social engagement, and speech articulation.
  • Behavioral problems. Emotional instability, anxiety, and trouble focusing are a few behavioral problems that sensory processing disorders may cause.
  • Phantom limb pain. A particularly interesting condition that occurs when people with an amputation feel pain in the limb or region of the body that is no longer there. The brain continues to receive messages that are perceived as pain, tingling, numbness, or other sensations even in the absence of the limb. Although the precise source of phantom limb pain is unknown, intricate changes in the somatosensory cortex and nervous system are thought to be involved.

These effects highlight the crucial role of the somatosensory cortex in integrating sensory information and the significant impact of sensory processing disorders on overall function and behavior.

Conclusion

The somatosensory cortex is a crucial part of the human brain that is involved in processing sensory data and allowing people to see and engage with their surroundings. The parietal lobe is home to this complex network of neurons that supports touch, temperature, pain, and proprioception. A number of health concerns, such as altered perception, motor dysfunction, communication challenges, and behavioral issues, can result from malfunction in the somatosensory cortex. Understanding the function of the somatosensory cortex highlights the significant influence it has on day-to-day activities and the emergence of sensory processing disorders.

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