A major role of sensory receptors is to help us learn about the environment around us, or about the state of our internal environment. Stimuli from varying sources, and of different types, are received and changed into the electrochemical signals of the nervous system. This occurs when a stimulus changes the cell membrane potential of a sensory neuron. The stimulus causes the sensory cell to produce an action potential that is relayed into the central nervous system (CNS), where it is integrated with other sensory information—or sometimes higher cognitive functions—to become a conscious perception of that stimulus. The central integration may then lead to a motor response.
Describing sensory function with the term sensation or perception is a deliberate distinction.
Sensation is the activation of sensory receptor cells at the level of the stimulus. Perception is the central processing of sensory stimuli into a meaningful pattern.
Perception is dependent on sensation, but not all sensations are perceived. Receptors are the cells or structures that detect sensations. A receptor cell is changed directly by a stimulus. A transmembrane protein receptor is a protein in the cell membrane that mediates a physiological change in a neuron, most often through the opening of ion channels or changes in the cell signaling processes. Transmembrane receptors are activated by chemicals called ligands. For example, a molecule in food can serve as a ligand for taste receptors. Other transmembrane proteins, which are not accurately called receptors, are sensitive to mechanical or thermal changes. Physical changes in these proteins increase ion flow across the membrane, and can generate an action potential or a graded potential in the sensory neurons.