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Medicine LibreTexts

12.3B: Tactile Sensation

Touch is sensed by mechanoreceptive neurons that respond to pressure in various ways.

 

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

 

Describe how touch is sensed by mechanoreceptive neurons responding to pressure

 

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Key Points

 

  • Our sense of touch, or tactile sensation, is mediated by cutaneous mechanoreceptors located in our skin.
  • There are four main types of cutaneous mechanoreceptors: Pacinian corpuscles, Meissner’s corpuscles, Merkel’s discs, and Ruffini endings.
  • Cutaneous mechanoreceptors are categorized by morphology, by the type of sensation they perceive, and by the rate of adaptation. Furthermore, each has a different receptive field.

 

Key Terms

 

  • receptive field: The particular region of the sensory space (e.g., the body surface, space inside the ear) in which a stimulus will trigger the firing of that neuron.
  • adaptation: A change over time in the responsiveness of the sensory system to a constant stimulus.
  • Aβ fiber: A type of sensory nerve fiber that carries cold, pressure, and some pain signals.
  • Aδ fiber: Carries sensory information related to muscle spindle secondary endings, touch, and kinesthesia.

A mechanoreceptor is a sensory receptor that responds to mechanical pressure or distortion. For instance, in the periodontal ligament, there are mechanoreceptors that allow the jaw to relax when biting down on hard objects; the mesencephalic nucleus is responsible for this reflex.

In the skin, there are four main types in glabrous (hairless) skin:

  1. Ruffini endings.
  2. Meissner’s corpuscles.
  3. Pacinian corpuscles.
  4. Merkel’s discs.

There are also mechanoreceptors in hairy skin. The hair cells in the cochlea are the most sensitive mechanoreceptors, transducing air pressure waves into nerve signals sent to the brain.

Cutaneous Mechanoreceptors

Cutaneous mechanoreceptors are located in the skin, like other cutaneous receptors. They provide the senses of touch, pressure, vibration, proprioception, and others. They are all innervated by Aβ fibers, except the mechanoreceiving free nerve endings, which are innervated by Aδ fibers.

They can be categorized by morphology, by the type of sensation they perceive, and by the rate of adaptation. Furthermore, each has a different receptive field:

  • Ruffini’s end organs detect tension deep in the skin.
  • Meissner’s corpuscles detect changes in texture (vibrations around 50 Hz) and adapt rapidly.
  • Pacinian corpuscles detect rapid vibrations (about 200–300 Hz).
  • Merkel’s discs detect sustained touch and pressure.
  • Mechanoreceiving free nerve endings detect touch, pressure, and stretching.
  • Hair follicle receptors are located in hair follicles and sense the position changes of hair strands.

Ruffini Ending

The Ruffini ending (Ruffini corpuscle or bulbous corpuscle) is a class of slowly adapting mechanoreceptors thought to exist only in the glabrous dermis and subcutaneous tissue of humans. It is named after Angelo Ruffini.

This spindle-shaped receptor is sensitive to skin stretch, and contributes to the kinesthetic sense of and control of finger position and movement. It is believed to be useful for monitoring the slippage of objects along the surface of the skin, allowing the modulation of grip on an object.

Ruffini endings are located in the deep layers of the skin. They register mechanical information within joints, more specifically angle change, with a specificity of up to two degrees, as well as continuous pressure states. They also act as thermoreceptors that respond for a long time, such as holding hands with someone during a walk. In a case of a deep burn to the body, there will be no pain as these receptors will be burned off.

Meissner’s Corpuscles

Meissner’s corpuscles (or tactile corpuscles) are responsible for sensitivity to light touch. In particular, they have the highest sensitivity (lowest threshold) when sensing vibrations lower than 50 hertz. They are rapidly adaptive receptors.

Pacinian Corpuscles

Pacinian corpuscles (or lamellar corpuscles) are responsible for sensitivity to vibration and pressure. The vibrational role may be used to detect surface texture, e.g., rough versus smooth.

Merkel Nerve

Merkel nerve endings are mechanoreceptors found in the skin and mucosa of vertebrates that provide touch information to the brain. The information they provide are those regarding pressure and texture. Each ending consists of a Merkel cell in close apposition with an enlarged nerve terminal.

This is sometimes referred to as a Merkel cell–neurite complex, or a Merkel disk receptor. A single afferent nerve fiber branches to innervate up to 90 such endings. They are classified as slowly adapting type I mechanoreceptors.