Anatomy and Physiology Study Guides and Reviewer – Nurseslabs

Have you ever wondered how our senses work? How we are able to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch? In this article, we will explore the fascinating world of our special senses and the anatomy and physiology behind them.

Functions of Special Senses

The five special senses are vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Each of these senses serves a specific function:

  1. Vision: Our eyes are capable of focusing and detecting images of visible light. This allows us to see a variety of colors, hues, and brightness.

  2. Hearing: Our ears enable us to perceive sound. Sound waves are detected by our auditory system, allowing us to hear and recognize different sounds.

  3. Taste: Our taste buds allow us to detect the taste of substances such as food, minerals, and even poisons. This sense helps us distinguish between different flavors.

  4. Smell: Our olfactory system enables us to perceive various odors. Different molecules in the air excite specific receptors in our nose, creating our sense of smell.

  5. Touch: Our sense of touch, also known as somatosensory perception, allows us to perceive sensations through activation of neural receptors in our skin, hair follicles, tongue, throat, and mucosa.

The Eye and Vision

Vision is one of our most studied senses, with 70% of the sensory receptors in our body located in our eyes. Let’s take a closer look at the anatomy of the eye:

External and Accessory Structures

The eye has several external and accessory structures that protect and support its function:

  • Eyelids: The eyelids protect the eyes. They meet at the medial and lateral corners, known as the medial and lateral commissures (canthus).

  • Eyelashes: Eyelashes project from the border of each eyelid.

  • Tarsal Glands: These modified sebaceous glands produce an oily secretion that lubricates the eye. Ciliary glands, which are modified sweat glands, are also present.

  • Conjunctiva: A delicate membrane that lines the eyelids and covers part of the outer surface of the eyeball.

  • Lacrimal Apparatus: The lacrimal gland releases tears onto the anterior surface of the eyeball through small ducts. Tears cleanse, protect, and moisten the eye surface.

  • Extrinsic Eye Muscles: Six muscles attached to the outer surface of the eye produce eye movements and allow us to track moving objects.

Internal Structures: The Eyeball

The eyeball is a hollow sphere with three layers forming its wall. The interior of the eyeball is filled with fluids called humors, which help maintain its shape. Let’s explore the layers of the eyeball:

  1. Fibrous Layer: The outermost layer consists of the sclera and the transparent cornea. The sclera is a thick, white connective tissue that protects and supports the eye. The cornea, located in the central anterior portion, is crystal clear and allows light to enter the eye.

  2. Vascular Layer: The middle layer has three distinguishable regions: the choroid, ciliary body, and iris. The choroid is a blood-rich nutritive tunic that contains a dark pigment to prevent light scattering. The ciliary body, located anteriorly, is modified to form two smooth muscle structures: the ciliary body itself and the iris. The iris is the colored part of the eye and has a rounded opening called the pupil, which allows light to pass through.

  3. Sensory Layer: The innermost layer of the eye is the retina, which extends anteriorly only to the ciliary body. The retina contains millions of receptor cells called rods and cones. These photoreceptors respond to light and transmit signals to the brain, allowing us to see.


The lens is a crystal-like structure that focuses light onto the retina. It divides the eye into two segments: the anterior (aqueous) segment and the posterior (vitreous) segment. The aqueous segment contains a clear, watery fluid called aqueous humor, while the vitreous segment is filled with a gel-like substance called vitreous humor. These fluids help maintain intraocular pressure and prevent the eyeball from collapsing inward.

Eye Reflexes

Our eyes have two important reflexes:

  • Photopupillary Reflex: When exposed to bright light, our pupils constrict to protect the delicate photoreceptors from damage.

  • Accommodation Pupillary Reflex: Our pupils also constrict when we view close objects, allowing for more acute vision.

The Ear: Hearing and Balance

Our ears are responsible for both hearing and balance. Let’s explore the anatomy of the ear:

External (Outer) Ear

The external ear consists of the auricle (also known as the pinna) and the external acoustic meatus. The auricle is the shell-shaped structure that surrounds the auditory canal opening. The external acoustic meatus is a short chamber carved into the temporal bone of the skull and contains ceruminous glands that secrete earwax.

Middle Ear

The middle ear, or tympanic cavity, is a small, air-filled cavity located within the temporal bone. It contains three auditory ossicles: the malleus, incus, and stapes. These ossicles transmit sound vibrations from the eardrum to the fluids of the inner ear. The middle ear is also connected to the throat by the pharyngotympanic tube, which helps equalize pressure between the middle ear and the external environment.

Internal (Inner) Ear

The internal ear is a complex structure composed of the bony labyrinth and the membranous labyrinth. The bony labyrinth is located deep within the temporal bone and contains three subdivisions: the cochlea, the vestibule, and the semicircular canals. These structures are filled with fluid and house specialized receptors that detect sound vibrations and changes in head position and movement.

Chemical Senses: Taste and Smell

Our chemical senses, taste and smell, play crucial roles in our perception of the world. Let’s explore these senses:

Olfactory Receptors and the Sense of Smell

Our sense of smell is less acute compared to other animals, but it still plays an important role in our daily lives. Olfactory receptors, located in the roof of each nasal cavity, detect various odors. When stimulated by chemicals dissolved in the mucus, these receptors send signals along the olfactory nerve to the olfactory cortex in the brain, allowing us to perceive different smells.

Taste Buds and the Sense of Taste

Taste buds are oval structures located on the surface of the tongue and other areas of the oral cavity. They contain taste cells, specialized epithelial cells that respond to chemicals dissolved in saliva. These taste cells have hair-like processes called taste hairs, which extend into tiny openings in the surrounding stratified epithelium called taste pores. Taste buds allow us to perceive different flavors.

Physiology of the Special Senses

The special senses involve complex physiological processes that allow us to perceive and interpret stimuli from the environment. Let’s explore some of these processes:

Pathway of Light through the Eye and Light Refraction

When light passes through different substances with varying densities, its speed changes, and its rays are bent or refracted. Light enters the eye through the cornea and is focused by the lens onto the retina. The lens can change its shape to adjust for near and far vision, allowing us to see objects clearly. The image formed on the retina is then transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve for visual interpretation.

Visual Fields and Visual Pathways to the Brain

Axons from the retina form the optic nerve, which carries visual information to the brain. At the optic chiasma, some fibers cross over to the opposite side of the brain, while others remain on the same side. These fibers form the optic tracts, which carry visual information to the thalamus. From the thalamus, the information is transmitted to the visual cortex in the occipital lobe, where it is processed and interpreted.

Mechanisms of Equilibrium

Equilibrium, or our sense of balance, is maintained by the vestibular apparatus in the inner ear. This apparatus consists of the vestibule and the semicircular canals. Within the vestibule, receptors called maculae detect changes in head position relative to gravity. In the semicircular canals, receptors called crista ampullaris detect angular or rotatory movements of the head. These receptors send signals to the brain, allowing us to maintain our balance.

Mechanism of Hearing

Hearing involves the detection and interpretation of sound waves. When sound waves enter the ear, they pass through the external and middle ear before reaching the inner ear. In the inner ear, the sound vibrations are converted into electrical signals by hair cells in the organ of Corti. These signals are then transmitted via the auditory nerve to the brain for processing and interpretation.


The special senses of vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch allow us to perceive and interact with the world around us. The anatomy and physiology of these senses involve complex mechanisms that enable us to see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. Understanding the intricacies of these senses helps us appreciate the wonders of our sensory experiences.

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