Massage stones help uncover the role of the prefrontal cortex in sensory perception

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Findings from a new study shed light on the role the prefrontal cortex plays in sensory processing and perception

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Findings from a new study shed light on the role the prefrontal cortex plays in sensory processing and perception




Scientists fromUniversity of Toronto (U of T) they found out via one study that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, a region known primarily for its role in behavior regulation, impulse inhibition and cognitive flexibility, produces sensations based on information provided by various senses. The results provide new insights into the still poorly understood role of prefrontal cortex in human perception.

A systematic review

Using a combination of photographs, sounds and even heated massage stones, the researchers studied the patterns of neural activity in the prefrontal cortex and in other brain regions known to be responsible for stimulation from all senses and found significant similarities.

If an individual was exposed directly to heat, for example, or simply by looking at an image of a sunny scene, the same pattern of neural activity could be seen in the prefrontal cortex. Hence, the findings suggest that the prefrontal cortex generalizes perceptual experiences which originate from different senses.

To understand how the human brain processes the torrent of information from the environment, researchers often study the senses in isolation, with much of the previous work focusing on the visual system. Using the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology To capture brain activity, the researchers conducted two experiments with the same participants, based on knowing how brain regions respond differently depending on the intensity of the stimulation.

In the first, participants saw a series of images of various scenes, including beaches, city streets, forests, and train stations, and were asked to judge whether the scenes were hot or cold and noisy or quiet. Throughout, neural activity in different brain regions was monitored.


In the second experiment, participants were first given a set of heated or cooled massage stones, and were subsequently exposed to both quiet and loud sounds, such as birds, people, and waves on a beach.

When comparing the activity patterns in the prefrontal cortex, the researchers could determine the temperature from both the stone experiment and the experiment with images as the neural activity patterns for temperature were consistent between the two experiments. Then, they could successfully determine whether a participant was holding a hot or cold stone from the models brain activity in the somatosensory cortex, which is the part of the brain that receives and processes sensory information from the entire body.

Similarly, the researchers were able to decode noisy versus silent sounds from the auditory cortex of the brain, and images of noisy versus silent scenes from the visual cortex.

The review suggests that the findings could open a new avenue for studying how the brain manages to process and represent complex real-world attributes that span multiple senses, even without experiencing them directly. Furthermore, these findings could helping people with limitations in a sensory modality to compensate with another, and thus achieve identical or very similar conceptual representations in their prefrontal cortex.

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Sources: JNeurosci

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