A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study was conducted during which seven subjects carried out naturalistic tactile object recognition (TOR) of real objects. Activation maps, conjunctions across subjects, were compared between tasks involving TOR of common real objects, palpation of "nonsense" objects, and rest. The tactile tasks involved similar motor and sensory stimulation, allowing higher tactile recognition processes to be isolated. Compared to nonsense object palpation, the most prominent activation evoked by TOR was in secondary somatosensory areas in the parietal operculum (SII) and insula, confirming a modality-specific path for TOR. Prominent activation was also present in medial and lateral secondary motor cortices, but not in primary motor areas, supporting the high level of sensory and motor integration characteristic of object recognition in the tactile modality. Activation in a lateral occipitotemporal area associated previously with visual object recognition may support cross-modal collateral activation. Finally, activation in medial temporal and prefrontal areas may reflect a common final pathway of modality-independent object recognition. This study suggests that TOR involves a complex network including parietal and insular somatosensory association cortices, as well as occipitotemporal visual areas, prefrontal, and medial temporal supramodal areas, and medial and lateral secondary motor cortices. It confirms the involvement of somatosensory association areas in the recognition component of TOR, and the existence of a ventrolateral somatosensory pathway for TOR in intact subjects. It challenges the results of previous studies that emphasize the role of visual cortex rather than somatosensory association cortices in higher-level somatosensory cognition.
Copyright 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.