BACKGROUND: Bodily sensations are an important component of corporeal awareness. Spinal cord injury can leave affected body parts insentient and unmoving, leading to specific disturbances in the mental representation of one's own body and the sense of self.
OBJECTIVE: Here, we explored how illusions induced by multisensory stimulation influence immediate sensory signals and tactile awareness in patients with spinal cord injuries.
METHODS: The rubber hand illusion paradigm was applied to 2 patients with chronic and complete spinal cord injury of the sixth cervical spine, with severe somatosensory impairments in 2 of 5 fingers.
RESULTS: Both patients experienced a strong illusion of ownership of the rubber hand during synchronous, but not asynchronous, stroking. They also, spontaneously reported basic tactile sensations in their previously numb fingers. Tactile awareness from seeing the rubber hand was enhanced by progressively increasing the stimulation duration.
CONCLUSIONS: Multisensory illusions directly and specifically modulate the reemergence of sensory memories and enhance tactile sensation, despite (or as a result of) prior deafferentation. When sensory inputs are lost, and are later illusorily regained, the brain updates a coherent body image even several years after the body has become permanently unable to feel. This particular example of neural plasticity represents a significant opportunity to strengthen the sense of the self and the feelings of embodiment in patients with spinal cord injury.