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Arousal responses to noxious stimuli in somatoparaphrenia and anosognosia: clues to body awareness

Daniele Romano, Martina Gandola, Gabriella Bottini, Angelo Maravita
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awu009 1213-1223 First published online: 15 February 2014


A complex brain representation of our body allows us to monitor incoming sensory stimuli and plan actions towards the external world. A critical element of such a complex representation is the sense of ownership towards our own body parts. Brain damage may disrupt this representation, leading to the striking neuropsychological condition called somatoparaphrenia, that is, the delusion that one’s own limbs belong to someone else. The clinical features characterizing somatoparaphrenia are well known, however, physiological clues of the level at which this condition may disrupt sensory functions are unknown. In the present study we investigated this issue by measuring the anticipatory skin conductance response to noxious stimuli approaching either the affected or the intact body side in a group of patients with somatoparaphrenia (n = 5; three females, age range = 66–84), and in a group of patients with anosognosia for sensory deficits, i.e. preserved ownership but decreased awareness of somatosensory deficit, (n = 5; one female, age range = 62–81 years) and in a group of purely hemiplegic patients (n = 5; two females, age range = 63–74 years) with no deficits of ownership or sensory awareness. Results show that anticipatory skin conductance responses to noxious stimuli directed to the contralesional hand are significantly reduced as compared to noxious stimuli directed to the ipsilesional hand in patients with somatoparaphrenia. By contrast a non-reduced anticipatory skin conductance response was observed in control participants as well as in patients affected by anosognosia for the somatosensory deficit and in patients affected by pure motor deficits. Furthermore, a pain anticipation response was always measured when the stimuli were directed towards the ipsilesional, unaffected hand in all groups. Our results show for the first time that the delusions shown by somatoparaphrenic patients are associated with an altered physiological index of perceptual analysis. The reduced response to sensory threats approaching the body suggests a deep detachment of the affected body part from the patient’s body representation. Conversely, normal reactions to incoming threats are found in the presence of impaired sensory awareness but intact body ownership, supporting the notion that representation of the body may be affected at different levels following brain damage.

  • somatoparaphrenia
  • anosognosia
  • skin conductance response
  • body representation
  • right brain damage
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