BACKGROUND: Exposure to bright light such as sunlight elicits a sneeze or prickling sensation in about one of every four individuals. This study presents the first scientific examination of this phenomenon, called 'the photic sneeze reflex'.
METHODOLOGY AND PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: In the present experiment, 'photic sneezers' and controls were exposed to a standard checkerboard stimulus (block 1) and bright flashing lights (block 2) while their EEG (electro-encephalogram) was recorded. Remarkably, we found a generally enhanced excitability of the visual cortex (mainly in the cuneus) to visual stimuli in 'photic sneezers' compared with control subjects. In addition, a stronger prickling sensation in the nose of photic sneezers was found to be associated with activation in the insula and stronger activation in the secondary somatosensory cortex.
CONCLUSION: We propose that the photic sneeze phenomenon might be the consequence of higher sensitivity to visual stimuli in the visual cortex and of co-activation of somatosensory areas. The 'photic sneeze reflex' is therefore not a classical reflex that occurs only at a brainstem or spinal cord level but, in stark contrast to many theories, involves also specific cortical areas.