When your arm becomes mine: Pathological embodiment of alien limbs using tools modulates own body representation

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Previous evidence has shown that active tool-use can reshape one's own body schema, extend peripersonal space and modulate the representation of related body parts. Here we investigate the effect of tool-use training on length representation of the contralesional forearm in brain-damaged hemiplegic patients who manifested a pathological embodiment of other people body parts. Four patients and 20 aged-matched healthy-controls were asked to estimate the mid-point of their contralesional forearm before and after 15 min of tool-use training (i.e. retrieving targets with a garbage plier). In the case of patients, training was always performed by the examiner's (alien) arm acting in two different positions, aligned (where the pathological embodiment occurs; E+ condition) or misaligned (where the pathological embodiment does not occur; E− condition) relative to the patients’ shoulder. Healthy controls performed tool-use training either with their own arm (action condition) or observing the examiner's arm performing the task (observation condition), handling (observation with-tool condition) or not (observation without-tool condition) a similar tool. Crucially, in the E+ condition, when patients were convinced to perform the tool-use training with their own paralyzed arm, a significant overestimation effect was found (as in the Action condition with normal subjects): patients mislocated their forearm midpoint more proximally to the hand in the post- than in the pre-training phase. Conversely, in the E− condition, they did not show any overestimation effect, similarly to healthy subjects in the observation condition (neither in the with-tool nor in the without-tool condition significant overestimation effects were found). These findings show the existence of a tight link between spatial, motor and bodily representations and provide strong evidence that a pathological sense of body ownership can extend to intentional motor processes and modulate the sensory map of action-related body parts.

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