What are Mechanoreceptors?

Mechanoreceptors are structures in the body that enable people to experience physical sensations. They feed tactile information to the brain so the brain can process it, providing information about objects in the environment people interact with, as well as vibrations in the air and other sources of physical sensation. There are a number of types of mechanoreceptors, designed to sense different kinds of tactile information, and these structures function in different ways. In disorders involving sensory sensitivity, people may have problems with their mechanoreceptors or the nerves that carry information from these structures to the brain.

Physical sensations can create a sense of pressure, distortion, vibration, or tension in the mechanoreceptors. These cells are usually designed to adapt, meaning as a sensation is experienced, the signals sent to the brain change. This prevents mechanoreceptors from repeatedly sending the same signal over and over, preventing people from being bombarded with information about constant sensations like clothing. Adaption speeds vary, depending on the type of receptor.

The fastest adapter is the Pacinian corpuscle, a type of receptor designed to sense vibrations. These structures are highly sensitized. Meissner's corpuscles and hair follicle receptors, designed to sense texture and the movement of hairs respectively, are slower adapters. They adjust to changes taking place within seconds, rather than fractions of seconds as with the Pacinian corpuscles. Finally, the slowest adapters include Ruffini cells for detecting tension and Merkel's discs for sensing pressure.

All of the mechanoreceptors provide important information about the surrounding environment. As people handle objects, their receptors adapt to offer useful feedback allowing people to do everything from controlling a pencil to gently petting an animal. Adaptation allows people to adjust the level of pressure they use when handling objects and provides a high degree of sensitivity on body parts like the hands and feet. These structures are also involved in the body's sense of balance, helping the brain find the body's place in space and the environment.

Problems with the mechanoreceptors can be associated with a number of causes. Physical damage to the receptors and the connected nerves may blunt tactile sensation or cause the nerve cells to misfire, providing the brain with inaccurate information. Certain neurological diseases can damage the nerves involved, jumbling the signal sent by the mechanoreceptors. Some individuals appear to be born with sensory sensitivity and may find certain sensations intolerable or extremely unpleasant. These individuals may have cognitive or developmental disabilities caused by changes in their brain structure.

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Post 4

@NathanG - I feel sorry for people who have problems with tactile sensitivity, which I guess would be the result of damage to the mechanoreceptors.

These people experience sensory overload when subjected to touch. Sometimes it’s the touch of materials; at other times it’s the touch of human skin.

I assume that their sensory overload takes place because the mechanoreceptors are not returning back to “normal,” after signaling changes to their environment. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have your body constantly screaming, “Change! Change! Change!” all the time without stopping.

I’ve heard that sometimes medical science can help these people and at other times they can get help through therapy sessions.

Post 3

@nony - I think that in the situation you’ve described you’re talking about comfort levels.

You are simply comfortable with the temperature as it is and he is not. Your body has returned to equilibrium, so that it doesn’t perceive any changes so to speak worth telling your brain about.

His body senses change that is beyond his comfort level so that his mechanoreceptors are firing like crazy. I don’t know if that’s an accurate analysis, but that’s my take.

Post 2

@everetra - I agree – the human body’s nerve network is an amazing system. I think the cutaneous mechanoreceptors are the most interesting because they are beneath the skin and have to respond to changes in stimuli very fast.

I guess because we basically contact the outside world through our skin these nerve fibers would have to be very prevalent. I do wonder, however, what role things like ambient room temperature and comfort levels play in affecting how these cells operate.

For example, if I am at work and I feel comfortable and yet a coworker in the next cubicle complains that it’s “too hot” or a little stuffy, what’s going on between his mechanoreceptors and mine, if you will?

Post 1

I never ceased to be amazed that the human sensory perception is an advanced system, operating very much like a computer network that is constantly collecting, transmitting and receiving information.

Based on this article, imagine how “simple” it would be for you to hold a cup of coffee, what would otherwise appear to be a routine task.

Your mechanoreceptors would have to send information about the tactile quality of the cup, its heat, its texture and so forth. If the cup proved to be too hot, the mechanoreceptor signals would communicate that information to your brain in the blink of an eye and you would have to put the cup of coffee down for awhile.

If you felt your grip slipping, you would have to increase your grip, owing to signals sent about the pressure placed on the cup. All of this happens without your thinking about it.

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