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Background: Functional imaging has recently been used to investigate detailed somatosensory organization in human cortex. Such studies frequently assume that human cortical areas are only identifiable insofar as they resemble those measured invasively in monkeys. This is true despite the electrophysiological basis of the latter recordings, which are typically extracellular recordings of action potentials from a restricted sample of cells.

Methodology/Principal Findings: Using high-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging in human subjects, we found a widely distributed cortical response in both primary somatosensory and motor cortex upon pneumatic stimulation of the hairless surface of the thumb, index and ring fingers. Though not organized in a discrete somatotopic fashion, the population activity in response to thumb and index finger stimulation indicated a disproportionate response to fingertip stimulation, and one that was modulated by stimulation direction. Furthermore, the activation was structured with a line of symmetry through the central sulcus reflecting inputs both to primary somatosensory cortex and, precentrally, to primary motor cortex.

Conclusions/Significance: In considering functional activation that is not somatotopically or anatomically restricted as in monkey electrophysiology studies, our methodology reveals finger-related activation that is not organized in a simple somatotopic manner but is nevertheless as structured as it is widespread. Our findings suggest a striking functional mirroring in cortical areas conventionally ascribed either an input or an output somatotopic function.


This article was originally published in PLoS ONE, 3(1): e1505.