Concurrent use of somatotopic and external reference frames in a tactile mislocalization task

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Localizing tactile stimuli on our body requires sensory information to be represented in multiple frames of reference along the sensory pathways. These reference frames include the representation of sensory information in skin coordinates, in which the spatial relationship of skin regions is maintained. The organization of the primary somatosensory cortex matches such somatotopic reference frame. In contrast, higher-order representations are based on external coordinates, in which body posture and gaze direction are taken into account in order to localise touch in other meaningful ways according to task demands. Dominance of one representation or the other, or the use of multiple representations with different weights, is thought to depend on contextual factors of cognitive and/or sensory origins. However, it is unclear under which situations a reference frame takes over another or when different reference frames are jointly used at the same time. The study of tactile mislocalizations at the fingers has shown a key role of the somatotopic frame of reference, both when touches are delivered unilaterally to a single hand, and when they are delivered bilaterally to both hands. Here, we took advantage of a well-established tactile mislocalization paradigm to investigate whether the reference frame used to integrate bilateral tactile stimuli can change as a function of the spatial relationship between the two hands. Specifically, supra-threshold interference stimuli were applied to the index or little fingers of the left hand 200 ms prior to the application of a test stimulus on a finger of the right hand. Crucially, different hands postures were adopted (uncrossed or crossed). Results show that introducing a change in hand-posture triggered the concurrent use of somatotopic and external reference frames when processing bilateral touch at the fingers. This demonstrates that both somatotopic and external reference frames can be concurrently used to localise tactile stimuli on the fingers.

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