Mechanoreceptors: Definition & Function

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  • 0:01 The Sense of Touch
  • 0:36 Definition of…
  • 0:55 Function of Mechanoreceptors
  • 2:05 Types of Cutaneous…
  • 3:37 Other Types of…
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Hilary North

Hilary is a biomedical researcher with a PhD in neuroscience.

How does the nervous system detect touch and communicate touch signals to the brain? Learn how mechanoreceptors function, the different types of mechanoreceptors, and what each type does.

The Sense of Touch

We all learned as children that there are five senses: sight, taste, sound, smell, and touch. The first four senses utilize obvious, distinct organs (eyes, taste buds, ears, and nose)… but how does the body sense touch? Touch happens all over the body, inside and out! There is not one distinct organ that is responsible for sensing touch. Instead, there are tiny receptors, or nerve endings, all over the body that sense touch wherever it occurs and send signals to the brain with information about what kind of touch has been felt.

Definition of Mechanical Receptor

Just as a taste bud on the tongue detects a taste, mechanoreceptors are receptors in the skin and on other organs that detect sensations of touch. They are called mechanoreceptors because they are designed to detect mechanical sensations or differences in pressure.

Function of Mechanoreceptors

A person understands that they have had a sensation once the organ responsible for detecting that particular sense sends a message to the brain, which is the primary organ that processes and organizes all of the information. Messages are sent from all corners of the body to the brain by wires called neurons. There are thousands of tiny neurons that branch out to all parts of the body, and on the ends of many of these neurons are mechanoreceptors.

To demonstrate what happens when you touch an object, we will use an example. Imagine a mosquito lands on your arm. The pressure of the insect, ever so light, stimulates mechanoreceptors in that particular area of your arm. Those mechanoreceptors send a message along the neuron they are connected to. The neuron connects all the way to the brain, which receives the message that something is touching the body at the precise location of the specific mechanoreceptor that sent the message. The brain will act on this information. Perhaps it will tell the eyes to look at the part of the arm that detected the touch. And once the eyes tell the brain that there's a mosquito on the arm, the brain might tell the hand to quickly flick it away!

Types of Cutaneous Mechanoreceptors

Cutaneous mechanoreceptors are located in the skin. There are many different types of tactile sensations, including touch, pressure, vibration, and temperature. There are different types of mechanoreceptors that are better suited for each of these, and the brain knows what the body is feeling based on which category of mechanoreceptor sends the message.

Pacinian Corpuscles, otherwise known as lamellar corpuscles, detect sudden changes in vibration or pressure. If the surface you are walking on changes from carpet to hardwood, or an object moving nearby causes a vibration, it is the Pacinian corpuscle that sends the message to the brain.

Meissner's Corpuscles are similar to Pacinian corpuscles in that they also detect changes in touch, but Meissner's corpuscles are located in a more shallow position beneath the skin and are therefore specialized to detect very light touches. They are ideal for detecting texture and patterns on objects that touch the skin.

Ruffini Nerve Endings let you know when your skin is being stretched, and information about deeper, lasting pressure. They are especially dense on the fingertips where they are thought to contribute to our ability to grip objects. If you are holding a coffee mug and it begins to slowly slip, Ruffini nerve endings will detect the pressure and stretch in your skin and communicate the situation to your brain.

Merkel Nerve Endings also respond to touch, but are fine-tuned spatially to let you know where precisely an object is in contact with your body.

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