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Turning sensation into perception

Perceiving a simple touch may depend as much on memory, attention, and expectation as on the stimulus itself, according to new research from Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) international research scholar Ranulfo Romo and his colleague Victor de Lafuente. The scientists found that monkeys' perceptions of touch match brain activity in the frontal lobe, an area that assimilates many types of neural information.

Romo and de Lafuente, both of the Institute of Cellular Physiology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, report their results in the December 2005 issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, published early online on November 6, 2005.

One of neuroscience's most difficult questions concerns how the brain converts simple sensory inputs to complete perceptual experiences. Many neuroscientists assume that perceptions arise in the sensory cortices, which are the first areas of the brain to process information coming in from sense organs, Romo said. Some recent research, however, has hinted that activity in other parts of the brain may also contribute to sensory perception.

When it comes to the sense of touch, a stimulus at the skin triggers an impulse that travels first to an area at the top of the brain called the primary somatosensory cortex (S1). The information then moves to other parts of the brain, where it can contribute to memory, decision-making, and motor outputs.

To explore what regions of the brain contribute to sensory perception, Romo and de Lafuente analyzed neural activity associated with the sense of touch in macaque monkeys. The researchers touched the monkeys' fingertips with a painless stimulus that sometimes vibrated and sometimes did not. The intensity of the vibration varied, so sometimes it was easy for the monkeys to tell that the vibration was on, while other times the vibrations were so weak that the monkeys couldn't always detect them. The monkeys were trained to indicate to the researchers w
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Contact: Jennifer Donovan
donovanj@hhmi.org
301-215-8859
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
6-Nov-2005


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