Phantom limb sensations in the ear of a patient with a brachial plexus lesion

Mariella Pazzaglia, Giulia Galli, Giuliana Lucci, Giorgio Scivoletto, Marco Molinari, Patrick Haggard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Referred phantom sensations are frequently reported following a peripheral injury. However, very few cases describe such sensations of the ear, and it remains unclear how the aural nerve territory can be remapped to one specific peripheral nerve region. We report on a patient with brachial plexus avulsion who underwent sensory testing and was asked to report the location of the stimulated site and any other sensations experienced. The patient spontaneously described the sensation of his arm being separate from his body. Despite visual input, he felt that his fist was closed, with his thumb pointing inward. Importantly, he felt clear and reproducible sensations from the affected arm when the ipsilateral ear was touched. These referred sensations were noted just 15 days after sustaining the injury. The arm nerve territory was systematically remapped to a specific aural nerve territory by applying both manual and electrical stimulation. Stimulation of the external ear, which is innervated by the vagus nerve, showed high spatial specificity for the dorsal and volar skin surfaces of the limb, and clearly delineated digits. Somatosensory-evoked potentials indicated that cortical adaptation in the somatosensory stream transferred a spatially organized map of the limb to the skin of the outer ear. This referral of sensations to the ear, as distinct from the face, provides evidence of highly specific topographical reorganization of the central nervous system following peripheral injury. Rapid map changes in the phantom sensation to the ear as a function of stimulation of vagus nerve suggest that the reorganization process can occur in cortex rather than in the brainstem.

Original languageEnglish
JournalCortex
DOIs
Publication statusAccepted/In press - Jan 1 2018

Keywords

  • Brachial plexus avulsion
  • Brain plasticity
  • Ear
  • Ear hand remapping
  • Phantom sensation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

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