Convergence of sensory systems in the orbitofrontal cortex in primates and brain design for emotion

Anat Rec A Discov Mol Cell Evol Biol. 2004 Nov;281(1):1212-25. doi: 10.1002/ar.a.20126.


In primates, stimuli to sensory systems influence motivational and emotional behavior via neural relays to the orbitofrontal cortex. This article reviews studies on the effects of stimuli from multiple sensory modalities on the brain of humans and some other higher primates. The primate orbitofrontal cortex contains the secondary taste cortex, in which the reward value of taste is represented. It also contains the secondary and tertiary olfactory cortical areas, in which information about the identity and also about the reward value of odors is represented. A somatosensory input is revealed by neurons that respond to the viscosity of food in the mouth, to the texture (mouth feel) of fat in the mouth, and to the temperature of liquids placed into the mouth. The orbitofrontal cortex also receives information about the sight of objects from the temporal lobe cortical visual areas. Information about each of these modalities is represented separately by different neurons, but in addition, other neurons show convergence between different types of sensory input. This convergence occurs by associative learning between the visual or olfactory input and the taste. In that emotions can be defined as states elicited by reinforcers, the neurons that respond to primary reinforcers (such as taste and touch), as well as learn associations to visual and olfactory stimuli that become secondary reinforcers, provide a basis for understanding the functions of the orbitofrontal cortex in emotion. In complementary neuroimaging studies in humans, it is being found that areas of the orbitofrontal cortex are activated by pleasant touch, by painful touch, by taste, by smell, and by more abstract reinforcers such as winning or losing money. Damage to the orbitofrontal cortex in humans can impair the learning and reversal of stimulus-reinforcement associations and thus the correction of behavioral responses when these are no longer appropriate because previous reinforcement contingencies change. It is striking that humans and other catarrhines, being visual specialists like other anthropoids, interface the visual system to other sensory systems (e.g., taste and smell) in the orbitofrontal cortex.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / anatomy & histology*
  • Afferent Pathways / physiology
  • Animals
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / anatomy & histology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Primates / anatomy & histology*
  • Primates / physiology
  • Reward
  • Sensation / physiology*
  • Smell / physiology
  • Taste / physiology