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36.2: Sensory Processes - Transduction and Perception

  • Page ID
    • Boundless
    • Boundless
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    Learning Objectives
    • Explain how stimuli are converted to signals that are carried to the central nervous system


    The most fundamental function of a sensory system is the translation of a sensory signal to an electrical signal in the nervous system. This takes place at the sensory receptor. The change in electrical potential that is produced is called the receptor potential. How is sensory input, such as pressure on the skin, changed to a receptor potential? As an example, a type of receptor called a mechanoreceptor possesses specialized membranes that respond to pressure. Disturbance of these dendrites by compressing them or bending them opens gated ion channels in the plasma membrane of the sensory neuron, changing its electrical potential. In the nervous system, a positive change of a neuron’s electrical potential (also called the membrane potential), depolarizes the neuron. Receptor potentials are graded potentials: the magnitude of these graded (receptor) potentials varies with the strength of the stimulus. If the magnitude of depolarization is sufficient (that is, if membrane potential reaches a threshold), the neuron will fire an action potential. In most cases, the correct stimulus impinging on a sensory receptor will drive membrane potential in a positive direction, although for some receptors, such as those in the visual system, this is not always the case.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Mechanoreceptor activation: (a) Mechanosensitive ion channels are gated ion channels that respond to mechanical deformation of the plasma membrane. A mechanosensitive channel is connected to the plasma membrane and the cytoskeleton by hair-like tethers. When pressure causes the extracellular matrix to move, the channel opens, allowing ions to enter or exit the cell. (b) Stereocilia in the human ear are connected to mechanosensitive ion channels. When a sound causes the stereocilia to move, mechanosensitive ion channels transduce the signal to the cochlear nerve.

    Sensory receptors for the various senses work differently from each other. They are specialized according to the type of stimulus they sense; thus, they have receptor specificity. For example, touch receptors, light receptors, and sound receptors are each activated by different stimuli. Touch receptors are not sensitive to light or sound; they are sensitive only to touch or pressure. However, stimuli may be combined at higher levels in the brain, as happens with olfaction, contributing to our sense of taste.

    Encoding and Transmission of Sensory Information

    Four aspects of sensory information are encoded by sensory systems: the type of stimulus, the location of the stimulus in the receptive field, the duration of the stimulus, and the relative intensity of the stimulus. Thus, action potentials transmitted over a sensory receptor’s afferent axons encode one type of stimulus. This segregation of the senses is preserved in other sensory circuits. For example, auditory receptors transmit signals over their own dedicated system. The electrical activity in the axons of the auditory receptors will be interpreted by the brain as an auditory stimulus: a sound.

    The intensity of a stimulus is often encoded in the rate of action potentials produced by the sensory receptor. Thus, an intense stimulus will produce a more rapid train of action potentials. Reducing the stimulus will likewise slow the rate of production of action potentials. A second way in which intensity is encoded is by the number of receptors activated. An intense stimulus might initiate action potentials in a large number of adjacent receptors, while a less intense stimulus might stimulate fewer receptors. Integration of sensory information begins as soon as the information is received in the central nervous system.


    Perception is an individual’s interpretation of a sensation. Although perception relies on the activation of sensory receptors, perception happens, not at the level of the sensory receptor, but at the brain level. The brain distinguishes sensory stimuli through a sensory pathway: action potentials from sensory receptors travel along neurons that are dedicated to a particular stimulus.

    All sensory signals, except those from the olfactory system, are transmitted though the central nervous system: they are routed to the thalamus and to the appropriate region of the cortex. The thalamus is a structure in the forebrain that serves as a clearinghouse and relay station for sensory (as well as motor) signals. When the sensory signal exits the thalamus, it is conducted to the specific area of the cortex dedicated to processing that particular sense.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Sensation processing: The brain has dedicated areas to the processing of stimuli, including: (a) thalamus and (b) the auditory, visual and somatosensory processing regions.

    Key Points

    • Sensory signals are converted to electrical signals via depolarization of sensory neuron membranes upon stimulus of the receptor, which causes opening of gated ion channels that cause the membrane potential to reach its threshold.
    • The receptor potentials are classified as graded potentials; the magnitude of these potentials is dependent on the strength of the stimulus.
    • The sensory system shows receptor specificity; although stimuli can be combined in processing regions of the brain, a specific receptor will only be activated by its specific stimulus.
    • The brain contains specific processing regions (such as the somatosensory, visual, and auditory regions) that are dedicated to processing the information which has previously passed through the thalamus, the ‘clearinghouse and relay station’ for both sensory and motor signals.
    • The four major components of encoding and transmitting sensory information include: the type of stimulus, the stimulus location within the receptive field, the duration, and the intensity of the stimulus.

    Key Terms

    • membrane potential: the difference in electrical potential across the enclosing membrane of a cell
    • action potential: a short term change in the electrical potential that travels along a cell
    • transduction: the translation of a sensory signal in the sensory system to an electrical signal in the nervous system

    Contributions and Attributions

    This page titled 36.2: Sensory Processes - Transduction and Perception is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Boundless.

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