The vestibular system has widespread interactions with multisensory cortical networks, including the somatosensory areas. Several clinical observations suggested that vestibular signals are essential to compute more abstract cognitive representations of the body. However, the existing literature is generally based on isolated reports. We aimed to provide both a theoretical framework, and an experimental method to investigate potential vestibular contributions to somatic cognition. Accordingly, we have investigated effects of galvanic vestibular stimulation (GVS) on the localisation of a stimulus on the skin of the hand (a process that we define as somatoperception) and on the implicit representation of the hand size and shape (involving a different process which we define as somatorepresentation).
Vestibular input influenced the localisation of tactile stimuli on the hand: touches on the dorsum of the hand were perceived as shifted toward the wrist. The specific polarity of vestibular stimulation influences the localisation errors. Right anodal and left cathodal, which influences both cerebral hemispheres, induced a stronger localisation bias compared to left anodal and right cathodal GVS, which influences primarily the right hemisphere. Although our data confirmed previous findings that the body model of the shape of the hand is massively distorted, vestibular inputs do not contribute to these distortions.
Our results suggest that vestibular input influences the registration of somatosensory input onto a map of the body (somatoperception), but does not influence stored knowledge about the spatial organisation of the body as a physical object (somatorepresentation).