Sensory information is processed in the visual cortex in distinct streams of different anatomical and functional properties. A comparable organizational principle has also been proposed to underlie auditory processing. This raises the question of whether a similar principle characterize the somatosensory domain. One property of a cortical stream is a hierarchical organization of the neuronal response properties along an anatomically distinct pathway. Indeed, several hierarchies between specific somatosensory cortical regions have been identified, primarily using electrophysiology, in non-human primates. However, it has been unclear how these local hierarchies are organized throughout the cortex. Here we used phase-encoded bilateral full-body light touch stimulation in healthy humans under functional MRI to study the large-scale organization of hierarchies in the somatosensory domain. We quantified two measures of hierarchy of BOLD responses, selectivity and laterality. We measured how selectivity and laterality change as we move away from the central sulcus within four gross anatomically-distinct regions. We found that both selectivity and laterality decrease in three directions: parietal, posteriorly along the parietal lobe, frontal, anteriorly along the frontal lobe and medial, inferiorly-anteriorly along the medial wall. The decline of selectivity and laterality along these directions provides evidence for hierarchical gradients. In view of the anatomical segregation of these three directions, the multiplicity of body representations in each region and the hierarchical gradients in our findings, we propose that as in the visual and auditory domains, these directions are streams of somatosensory information processing.
Hierarchical cortical gradients in somatosensory processing
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