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Neural Computation

December 2011, Vol. 23, No. 12, Pages 3001-3015
(doi: 10.1162/NECO_a_00179)
© 2011 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Reappraisal of the Somatosensory Homunculus and Its Discontinuities
Article PDF (336.28 KB)

Neuroscience folklore has it that somatotopy in human primary somatosensory cortex (SI) has two significant discontinuities: the hands and face map onto adjacent regions in SI, as do the feet and genitalia. It has been proposed that these conjunctions in SI result from coincident sources of stimulation in the fetal position, where the hands frequently touch the face, and the feet the genitalia. Computer modeling using a Hebbian variant of the self-organizing Kohonen net is consistent with this proposal. However, recent work reveals that the genital representation in SI for cutaneous sensations (as opposed to tumescence) is continuous with that of the lower trunk and thigh. This result, in conjunction with reports of separate face innervation and its earlier onset of sensory function, compared to that of the rest of the body, allows a reappraisal of homuncular organization. It is proposed that the somatosensory homunculus comprises two distinct somatotopic regions: the face representation and that of the rest of the body. Principles of self-organization do not account satisfactorily for the overall homuncular map. These results may serve to alert computational modelers that intrinsic developmental factors can override simple rules of plasticity.