The somatic nervous system is traditionally considered a division within the peripheral nervous system. However, this misses an important point: somatic refers to a functional division, whereas peripheral refers to an anatomic division. The somatic nervous system is responsible for our conscious perception of the environment and for our voluntary responses to that perception by means of skeletal muscles. Peripheral sensory neurons receive input from environmental stimuli, but the neurons that produce motor responses originate in the central nervous system. The distinction between the structures (i.e., anatomy) of the peripheral and central nervous systems and functions (i.e., physiology) of the somatic and autonomic systems can most easily be demonstrated through a simple reflex action. When you touch a hot stove, you pull your hand away. Sensory receptors in the skin sense extreme temperature and the early signs of tissue damage. This triggers an action potential, which travels along the sensory fiber from the skin, through the dorsal spinal root to the spinal cord, and directly activates a ventral horn motor neuron. That neuron sends a signal along its axon to excite the biceps brachii, causing contraction of the muscle and flexion of the forearm at the elbow to withdraw the hand from the hot stove. The withdrawal reflex has more components, such as inhibiting the opposing muscle and balancing posture while the arm is forcefully withdrawn, which will be further explored at the end of this chapter.
The basic withdrawal reflex explained above includes sensory input (the painful stimulus), central processing (the synapse in the spinal cord), and motor output (activation of a ventral motor neuron that causes contraction of the biceps brachii). Expanding the explanation of the withdrawal reflex can include inhibition of the opposing muscle, or cross extension, either of which increase the complexity of the example by involving more central neurons. A collateral branch of the sensory axon would inhibit another ventral horn motor neuron so that the triceps brachii do not contract and slow the withdrawal down. The cross extensor reflex provides a counterbalancing movement on the other side of the body, which requires another collateral of the sensory axon to activate contraction of the extensor muscles in the contralateral limb.
A more complex example of somatic function is conscious muscle movement. For example, reading of this text starts with visual sensory input to the retina, which then projects to the thalamus, and on to the cerebral cortex. A sequence of regions of the cerebral cortex process the visual information, starting in the primary visual cortex of the occipital lobe, and resulting in the conscious perception of these letters. Subsequent cognitive processing results in understanding of the content. As you continue reading, regions of the cerebral cortex in the frontal lobe plan how to move the eyes to follow the lines of text. The output from the cortex causes activity in motor neurons in the brain stem that cause movement of the extraocular muscles through the third, fourth, and sixth cranial nerves. This example also includes sensory input (the retinal projection to the thalamus), central processing (the thalamus and subsequent cortical activity), and motor output (activation of neurons in the brain stem that lead to coordinated contraction of extraocular muscles).
Stimuli in the environment activate specialized 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 on the basis of three different criteria: cell type, position, and function. Receptors can be classified structurally on the basis of cell type and their position in relation to stimuli they sense. They can also be classified functionally on the basis of 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 specialized receptor cell, which has distinct structural components that interpret a specific type of stimulus (Figure 8.2). 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 specialized receptor, a photoreceptor.
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 categorized on the basis of 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.
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 of 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, on the basis of 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 kinesthesia (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 on the basis of 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 assomatosensation, can be separated into light pressure, deep pressure, vibration, itch, pain, temperature, or hair movement.