Spatial frames of reference and somatosensory processing: A neuropsychological perspective

Giuseppe Vallar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In patients with lesions in the right hemisphere, frequently involving the posterior parietal regions, left-sided somatosensory (and visual and motor) deficits not only reflect a disorder of primary sensory processes, but also have a higher-order component related to a defective spatial representation of the body. This additional factor, related to right brain damage, is clinically relevant: contralesional hemianaesthesia (and hemianopia and hemiplegia) is more frequent in right brain-damaged patients than in patients with damage to the left side of the brain. Three main lines of investigation suggest the existence of this higher-order pathological factor. (i) Right brain-damaged patients with left hemineglect may show physiological evidence of preserved processing of somatosensory stimuli, of which they are not aware. Similar results have been obtained in the visual domain. (ii) Direction-specific vestibular, visual optokinetic and somatosensory or proprioceptive stimulations may displace spatial frames of reference in right brain-damaged patients with left hemineglect, reducing or increasing the extent of the patients ipsilesional rightward directional error, and bring about similar directional effects in normal subjects. These stimulations, which may improve or worsen a number of manifestations of the neglect syndrome (such as extrapersonal and personal hemineglect), have similar effects on the severity of left somatosensory deficits (defective detection of tactile stimuli, position sense disorders). However, visuospatial hemineglect and the somatosensory deficits improved by these stimulations are independent, albeit related, disorders. (iii) The severity of left somatosensory deficits is affected by the spatial position of body segments, with reference to the midsagittal plane of the trunk. A general implication of these observations is that spatial (non-somatotopic) levels of representation contribute to corporeal awareness. The neural basis of these spatial frames includes the posterior parietal and the premotor frontal regions. These spatial representations could provide perceptual-premotor interfaces for the organization of movements (e.g. pointing, locomotion) directed towards targets in personal and extrapersonal space. In line with this view, there is evidence that the sensory stimulations that modulate left somatosensory deficits affect left motor disorders in a similar, direction-specific, fashion.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1401-1409
Number of pages9
JournalPhilosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological sciences
Issue number1360
Publication statusPublished - Oct 29 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)


Dive into the research topics of 'Spatial frames of reference and somatosensory processing: A neuropsychological perspective'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this