The “creatures” of the human cortical somatosensory system

Penfield’s description of the “homunculus”, a “grotesque creature” with large lips and hands and small trunk and legs depicting the representation of body-parts within the primary somatosensory cortex (S1), is one of the most prominent contributions to the neurosciences. Since then, numerous studies have identified additional body-parts representations outside of S1. Nevertheless, it has been implicitly assumed that S1’s homunculus is representative of the entire somatosensory cortex. Therefore, the distribution of body-parts representations in other brain regions, the property that gave Penfield’s homunculus its famous “grotesque” appearance, has been overlooked. We used whole-body somatosensory stimulation, functional MRI and a new cortical parcellation to quantify the organization of the cortical somatosensory representation. Our analysis showed first, an extensive somatosensory response over the cortex; and second, that the proportional representation of body-parts differs substantially between major neuroanatomical regions and from S1, with, for instance, much larger trunk representation at higher brain regions, potentially in relation to the regions’ functional specialization. These results extend Penfield’s initial findings to the higher level of somatosensory processing and suggest a major role for somatosensation in human cognition.

Authors: Noam Saadon-Grosman, Yonatan Loewenstein, Shahar Arzy
Year of publication: 2020
Journal: Brain Communications Volume 2, Issue 1, fcaa003

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