In physiology, the somatosensory system is the network of neural structures in the brain and body that produce the perception of touch (haptic perception), as well as temperature (thermoception), body position (proprioception), and pain. It is a subset of the sensory nervous system, which also represents visual, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory stimuli.
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Somatosensation begins when mechano- and thermosensitive structures in the skin or internal organs sense physical stimuli such as pressure on the skin (see mechanotransduction, nociception). Activation of these structures, or receptors, leads to activation of peripheral sensory neurons that convey signals to the spinal cord as patterns of action potentials. Sensory information is then processed locally in the spinal cord to drive reflexes, and is also conveyed to the brain for conscious perception of touch and proprioception. Note, somatosensory information from the face and head enters the brain through peripheral sensory neurons in the cranial nerves, such as the trigeminal nerve.
The neural pathways that go to the brain are structured such that information about the location of the physical stimulus is preserved. In this way, neighboring neurons in the somatosensory cerebral cortex in the brain represent nearby locations on the skin or in the body, creating a map, also called a homunculus.