Reassessing referral of touch following peripheral deafferentation: The role of contextual bias.

Cortex; a journal devoted to the study of the nervous system and behavior(2023)

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Some amputees have been famously reported to perceive facial touch as arising from their phantom hand. These referred sensations have since been replicated across multiple neurological disorders and were classically interpreted as a perceptual correlate of cortical plasticity. Common to all these and related studies is that participants might have been influenced in their self-reports by the experimental design or related contextual biases. Here, we investigated whether referred sensations reports might be confounded by demand characteristics (e.g., compliance, expectation, suggestion). Unilateral upper-limb amputees (N = 18), congenital one-handers (N = 19), and two-handers (N = 22) were repeatedly stimulated with computer-controlled vibrations on 10 body-parts and asked to report the occurrence of any concurrent sensations on their hand(s). To further manipulate expectations, we gave participants the suggestion that some of these vibrations had a higher probability to evoke referred sensations. We also assessed similarity between (phantom) hand and face representation in primary somatosensory cortex (S1), using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) multivariate representational similarity analysis. We replicated robust reports of referred sensations in amputees towards their phantom hand; however, the frequency and distribution of reported referred sensations were similar across groups. Moreover, referred sensations were evoked by stimulation of multiple body-parts and similarly reported on both the intact and phantom hand in amputees. Face-to-phantom-hand representational similarity was not different in amputees' missing hand region, compared with controls. These findings weaken the interpretation of referred sensations as a perceptual correlate of S1 plasticity and reveal the need to account for contextual biases when evaluating anomalous perceptual phenomena.
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