As much as neuroscientists know about the neural processes that signal touch, surprisingly little is understood about the neural correlates of conscious perception of tactile sensations. In a new study in the open-access journal PLoS Biology, Felix Blankenburg, Jon Driver, and their colleagues turn to a classic somatosensory illusion—called the cutaneous rabbit—that is perfectly suited to decoupling real and illusory touch. In the illusion, a rapid succession of taps is delivered first to the wrist and then to the elbow, which creates the sensation of intervening taps hopping up the arm (hence the illusion’s name), even when no physical stimulus is applied at intervening sites on the arm.
The cutaneous rabbit illusion engages the same sector of the brain that would respond if that body site (P2) had actually been touched. (Photo: Blankenburg et al.)
Blankenburg et al. took advantage of this somatosensory illusion to investigate which brain regions play a role in illusory tactile perceptions. Previous studies had implicated the somatosensory cortex—the region of the cortex that first receives input from sensors in the body—in the rabbit illusion, but did not directly test this possibility. To do this, the authors used state-of-the-art functional magnetic resonance imaging technology (called 3T fMRI) to scan the brains of people experiencing the illusion. With the enhanced image quality and resolution of this scanner (deriving from the stronger magnetic field plus a specially customized imaging sequence), the authors show that the same brain sector is activated whether the tactile sensation is illusory or real.
To identify brain-related activity associated with real and illusory perceptions, the researchers taped three electrodes to the inner side of participants’ left forearms, one just above the wrist, the others spaced equidistantly toward the elbow. Electrical stimulation could be applied to these points while participants lay in the scanner. For the genuine rabbit experience, each point received three pulses in succession. For the illusion, pulses were only delivered to the first and third points, but subjects perceived that the second point had also been stimulated by virtue of the illusions created by the timing of the pulses.
Paul Ocampo | alfa
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