Objectives: The aim of this study was to localize and to investigate response properties of the primary (SI) and the secondary (SII) somatosensory cortex upon median nerve electrical stimulation.
Methods: Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to quantify brain activation under different paradigms using electrical median nerve stimulation in healthy right-handed volunteers. In total 11 subjects were studied using two different stimulus current values in the right hand: at motor threshold (I(max)) and at I(min) (1/2 I(max)). In 7 of these 11 subjects a parametric study was then conducted using 4 stimulus intensities (6/6, 5/6, 4/6 and 3/6 I(max)). Finally, in 10 subjects an attention paradigm in which they had to perform a counting task during stimulation with I(min) was done.
Results: SI activation increased with current amplitude. SI did not show significant activation during stimulation at I(min). SII activation did not depend on current amplitude. Also the posterior parietal cortex appeared to be activated at I(min). The I(min) response in SII significantly increased by selective attention compared to I(min) without attention. At I(max) significant SI activity was observed only in the contralateral hemisphere, the ipsilateral cerebellum, while other areas possibly showed bilateral activation.
Conclusions: Distributed activation in the human somatosensory cortical system due to median nerve stimulation was observed using fMRI. SI, in contrast to SII, appears to be exclusively activated on the contralateral side of the stimulated hand at I(max), in agreement with the concept of SI's important role in processing of proprioceptive input. Only SII remains significantly activated in case of lower current values, which are likely to exclusively stimulate the sensible fibres mediating cutaneous receptor input. Selective attention only enhances SII activity, indicating a higher-order role for SII in the processing of somatosensory input.