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Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001.

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Neuroscience. 2nd edition.

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Mechanoreceptors Specialized for Proprioception

Whereas cutaneous mechanoreceptors provide information derived from external stimuli, another major class of receptors provides information about mechanical forces arising from the body itself, the musculoskeletal system in particular. These are called proprioceptors, roughly meaning “receptors for self.” The purpose of proprioceptors is primarily to give detailed and continuous information about the position of the limbs and other body parts in space (specialized mechanoreceptors also exist in the heart and major vessels to provide information about blood pressure, but these neurons are considered to be part of the visceral motor system; see Chapter 21). Low-threshold mechanoreceptors, including muscle spindles, Golgi tendon organs, and joint receptors, provide this kind of sensory information, which is essential to the accurate performance of complex movements. Information about the position and motion of the head is particularly important; in this case, proprioceptors are integrated with the highly specialized vestibular system, which is considered separately in Chapter 14.

The most detailed knowledge about proprioception derives from studies of muscle spindles, which are found in all but a few striated (skeletal) muscles. Muscle spindles consist of four to eight specialized intrafusal muscle fibers surrounded by a capsule of connective tissue. The intrafusal fibers are distributed among the ordinary (extrafusal) fibers of skeletal muscle in a parallel arrangement (Figure 9.5). In the largest of the several intrafusal fibers, the nuclei are collected in an expanded region in the center of the fiber called a bag; hence the name nuclear bag fibers. The nuclei in the remaining two to six smaller intrafusal fibers are lined up single file, with the result that these fibers are called nuclear chain fibers. Myelinated sensory axons belonging to group Ia innervate muscle spindles by encircling the middle portion of both types of intrafusal fibers (see Figure 9.5 and Table 9.1). The Ia axon terminal is known as the primary sensory ending of the spindle. Secondary innervation is provided by group II axons that innervate the nuclear chain fibers and give off a minor branch to the nuclear bag fibers. The intrafusal muscle fibers contract when commanded to do so by motor axons derived from a pool of specialized motor neurons in the spinal cord (called γ motor neurons). The major function of muscle spindles is to provide information about muscle length (that is, the degree to which they are being stretched). A detailed account of how these important receptors function during movement is given in Chapters 16 and 17.

Figure 9.5. A muscle spindle and several extrafusal muscle fibers.

Figure 9.5

A muscle spindle and several extrafusal muscle fibers. See text for description. (After Matthews, 1964.)

The density of spindles in human muscles varies. Large muscles that generate coarse movements have relatively few spindles; in contrast, extraocular muscles and the intrinsic muscles of the hand and neck are richly supplied with spindles, reflecting the importance of accurate eye movements, the need to manipulate objects with great finesse, and the continuous demand for precise positioning of the head. This relationship between receptor density and muscle size is consistent with the generalization that the sensory motor apparatus at all levels of the nervous system is much richer for the hands, head, speech organs, and other parts of the body that are used to perform especially important and demanding tasks. Spindles are lacking altogether in a few muscles, such as those of the middle ear, which do not require the kind of feedback that these receptors provide.

Whereas muscle spindles are specialized to signal changes in muscle length, low-threshold mechanoreceptors in tendons inform the central nervous system about changes in muscle tension. These mechanoreceptors, called Golgi tendon organs, are innervated by branches of group Ib afferents and are distributed among the collagen fibers that form the tendons (see Chapter 16).

Finally, rapidly adapting mechanoreceptors in and around joints gather dynamic information about limb position and joint movement. The function of these joint receptors is not well understood.

By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2001, Sinauer Associates, Inc.
Bookshelf ID: NBK10812


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