Response to Stimuli

All biological systems, from single-cell bacteria to multicellular animals, constantly exchange matter and energy with the outside environment. When animals eat or plants take in sunlight, they interact with their environment, exchanging matter and energy. These interactions ensure the survival of the organism but also cause changes within its system. To survive, all living systems must maintain homeostasis, meaning a constant internal environment for optimal functioning despite these interactions. Therefore, all living beings must be able to regulate their responses to stimuli, which are changes in the internal or external environment.

Response to Stimuli Response to Stimuli

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Table of contents

    Responding to stimuli

    A response to a stimulus is any change in the state or activity of a cell or an organism in response to an external or internal signal or substance (the stimulus).

    Both our body and our individual cells are constantly reacting to stimuli that can come from the outside (like the prick of a needle) or from the body itself (like the release of a particular hormone).

    Responding to stimuli is essential for survival. It's the process that allows a rabbit to run when it sees a fox, and also allows wounds to seal through coagulation so that we don't bleed out when we cut ourselves. However, the body needs to go back to its resting state to survive too. The rabbit would die of exhaustion if it never stopped running once it started, and we run the risks of blood clots if the coagulation process is not controlled. Maintaining a constant internal environment is known as homeostasis.

    Homeostasis mechanisms

    Homeostasis is defined as the regulation and maintenance of a constant internal environment.

    There are two ways in which we regulate this internal environment when met with changes:

    Negative feedback loop

    The homeostatic balance is maintained through control mechanisms that regulate all organisms. Most of these mechanisms are called negative feedback control loops because they counter any change and restore the previous balance through corrective actions.

    A change is detected when any factor relevant to homeostatic balance rises above or falls below a certain optimal value. Once the change is detected and assessed, a response is triggered to decrease or increase the factor following the change. These corrections maintain stability in various factors such as the internal temperature (thermoregulation) of biological systems even when the external temperature varies uncontrollably. Figure 1 exemplifies a generic negative loop mechanism.

    Positive feedback loop

    There are also less common homeostatic control mechanisms required for organism survival called positive feedback loops.

    Positive loops enhance the change once detected by stimuli instead of correcting it. These systems are far less common because they lead to cascades of repeating events that enhance the stimuli. This type of positive loop is unstable by nature but can also be very important for homeostasis.

    Blood coagulation happens through a positive feedback loop that makes sure we don’t bleed out when we cut ourselves, and our blood vessels’ walls open.

    Blood clotting is a process that requires platelet aggregation. Once the stimulus is received that the vessel is opened to the outside, platelet aggregation is triggered. Platelets themselves promote their accumulation at the injury site by releasing chemicals and plugging the haemorrhage.

    From stimuli to a response

    A stimulus is any detectable change in an environmental or physiological factor. These factors can include any condition necessary to the organism and its cell’s optimal function and survival, like temperature or cell pH. Receptors detect stimuli.

    Receptors are proteins complementary to a specific molecule or a type of stimulus. They are found intracellularly and extracellularly and can initiate downstream reactions once stimulated.

    Coordination and response

    Any variation from an optimal level stimulates the receptors. This triggers an adaptive response by effector organs that corrects the imbalance. These responses can be complicated, especially in multicellular organisms like animals and plants, where receptors receive stimuli in one part of the body and effectors generate a response in another part of the body.

    Effector organs produce a response to the stimulus. This includes skeletal muscle and glands.

    This requires coordination systems to connect the receptors to the effectors through signals and control centres. This happens through the nervous and endocrine systems via electric or chemical/hormonal signalling in animals. In plants, these reactions happen through chemical systems like plant hormones.

    External stimuli

    External stimuli are changes in environmental factors, meaning external conditions to the organism that can affect its function. This includes environmental temperature or survival threats like environmental dangers.

    Our five senses perceive external stimuli, including touch, vision, sound, smell, and taste. These include various types of receptors that can detect environmental changes.

    For example, when you cross a road, you look both ways to assess oncoming traffic that may pose a threat to you. The visual and sound stimuli are received through receptors in our eyes and ears, assessed in our control centre in the nervous system, and a decision to either wait or walk is made and executed by effector organs (muscle cells) if you choose to walk.

    Internal stimuli

    Internal stimuli result from variations in physiological factors detected by internal receptors. These factors include systemic blood pressure and blood water content.

    Blood pressure needs to be maintained at a relatively constant level to ensure proper blood flow and oxygen supply reaches the organ systems and their cells. Changes in arterial blood pressure are detected by baroreceptors, a type of pressure sensor present in blood vessels like the aorta. When blood pressure is too high or too low, baroreceptors receive stimuli that trigger a necessary corrective response by effector organs.

    If blood pressure is too high, the following responses are triggered to increase it:

    • Kidneys retain less water
    • Vasodilation
    • Heart rate decreases

    If blood pressure is too low, the following occurs:

    • Kidneys retain more water
    • Vasoconstriction
    • Heart rate increases

    Stimuli and response examples

    Let’s review two classic examples of control mechanisms and responses to different stimuli: pain and temperature.

    Response to pain stimuli

    Pain stimuli are external stimuli most often associated with our sense of touch. This stimulus is received by nociceptors (“pain receptors”) on our skin that signal towards possible threats. This process can elicit a significant behavioural response once the central nervous system determines if the threat presents a true danger to survival or physical integrity.

    If significant enough, the control centre may even elicit an automatic response to mitigate the danger through a fast process called a reflex arc. A reflex arc mechanism causes a reflex action, an unconscious effectuated response that happens even before responding voluntarily to the threat. One common example is touching something sharp. Nociceptors on your hand detect the threat and transmit the signal through electric impulses to our brain, which creates the sensation of pain and triggers a fast, involuntary response to move away from the threat, thus stopping its harm.

    Response to temperature

    Temperature is perhaps one of the most important factors to be maintained in any organism in homeostatic balance. A stable temperature is vital to allow all chemical reactions that sustain life.

    Thermoregulation consists of all the behavioural and physiological regulatory mechanisms required to maintain the internal temperature constant despite variations in external temperature. If such responses didn’t exist, then our body temperature would automatically vary and match the outside environment, which is incompatible with life.

    Organisms have different strategies to respond to heat change. All mammals, including humans, can generate heat and have negative feedback loops that allow heat retention in cold environments and heat loss in hot environments. This heat balance allows us to maintain a constant temperature independently.

    Most other animals rely on the environment for heat sources and are therefore more vulnerable to its variation. They must rely on behavioural responses to maintain the internal temperature constant in these cases. This includes seeking shelter at night when it’s cold or the shade during the day when it’s hot to balance heat exchange.

    In humans, thermoregulation is coordinated by the hypothalamus in the brain. This is our internal 'thermostat' and measures our core temperature, which needs to be around 37°C. Receptors spread across the skin and within the body monitor internal and external temperature variation and relay the information to the hypothalamus, which acts upon any change with corrective actions once a stimulus is created.

    If the core temperature decreases as a result, for example, of a cold environment, the hypothalamus will try to increase heat production and retention in our body through:

    • Vasoconstriction – reduction of blood vessels’ lumen diameter near the skin, decreasing blood flow and heat loss
    • Shivering – involuntary muscle contractions that generate extra heat
    • Raising body hairs – muscle contraction near the skin to trap air and heat

    Meanwhile, if the core temperature increases as a result, for example, of a hot environment, the hypothalamus will try to increase heat loss in our body through:

    • Vasodilation – an increase of blood vessels’ lumen diameter near the skin increasing blood flow and heat loss
    • Sweat production – increased evaporation from the skin in the form of sweat helps to increase heat loss.

    Response to Stimuli - Key takeaways

    • Every living being needs to maintain homeostasis to survive, which means maintaining an internal constant environment despite internal and external/environmental pressures.
    • When a relevant parameter to homeostasis changes past a certain point, a stimulus is triggered by receptor cells.
    • Coordination systems like the nervous and endocrine systems act upon stimuli by determining if a response is required to maintain balance. Control centres instruct organ effectors to carry out an adequate response when a response is necessary.
    • Response to stimuli is most often corrective action, which is a response that annuls the cause that triggered the stimuli in the first place. This type of mechanism is known as a negative feedback loop. When a response amplifies the initiating stimuli, the mechanism is known as a positive feedback loop.
    • There are different types of stimuli: internal stimuli are detected by internal receptors, while external stimuli are detected by external receptors divided into our five senses: touch, vision, sound, smell, and taste.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Response to Stimuli

    What does response to stimuli mean?

    Response to stimuli is any action made by a biological system after a variation in its homeostatic balance is detected through stimuli. Responses are often corrective actions that counteract change restoring balance in the case of the homeostatic negative feedback loops. In the less common positive loops however a response can heighten the imbalance creating a cascade of repeating events.

    What is a response to stimuli example?

    Thermoregulation is an example of a response to stimuli mechanism. In a cold environment (low-temperature stimuli), blood vessels in humans constrict (vasoconstriction) to increase heat retention, while in a hot environment (high-temperature stimuli), blood vessels dilate (vasodilation) to increase heat loss.

    How do cells respond to different stimuli?

    Cells respond to stimuli using organ effectors. Signalling from control centres in the nervous and endocrine system direct effectors such as cells in muscles or blood vessels to respond to the stimuli and ensure homeostasis. Different stimuli are detected by different receptors spread across the organism.

    Which organisms can respond to stimuli?

    All organisms with appropriate receptors can respond to stimuli. There are different types of receptors for different types of stimuli. Photoreceptors detect light, nociceptors signal potential threats through pain. Whether an organism is able to respond to particular stimuli depends on if it has the appropriate receptors.

    What are the 5 types of stimuli?

    The 5 types of external stimuli are often divided into our senses: touch (pressure/movement), vision (light), hearing (sound), smell (chemical), and taste (chemical).

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