A Functionally Relevant Tool for the Body following Spinal Cord Injury

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A tool such as a prosthetic device that extends or restores movement may become part of the identity of the person to whom it belongs. For example, some individuals with spinal cord injury (SCI) adapt their body and action representation to incorporate their wheelchairs. However, it remains unclear whether the bodily assimilation of a relevant external tool develops as a consequence of altered sensory and motor inputs from the body or of prolonged confinement sitting or lying in the wheelchair. To explore such relationships, we used a principal component analysis (PCA) on collected structured reports detailing introspective experiences of wheelchair use in 55 wheelchair-bound individuals with SCI. Among all patients, the regular use of a wheelchair induced the perception that the body's edges are not fixed, but are instead plastic and flexible to include the wheelchair. The PCA revealed the presence of three major components. In particular, the functional aspect of the sense of embodiment concerning the wheelchair appeared to be modulated by disconnected body segments. Neither an effect of time since injury nor an effect of exposure to/experience of was detected. Patients with lesions in the lower spinal cord and with loss of movement and sensation in the legs but who retained upper body movement showed a higher degree of functional embodiment than those with lesions in the upper spinal cord and impairment in the entire body. In essence, the tool did not become an extension of the immobile limbs; rather, it became an actual tangible substitution of the functionality of the affected body part. These findings suggest that the brain can incorporate relevant artificial tools into the body schema via the natural process of continuously updating bodily signals. The ability to embody new essential objects extends the potentiality of physically impaired persons and can be used for their rehabilitation.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere58312
JournalPLoS One
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 6 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Medicine(all)


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