Visuo-vestibular mechanisms of bodily self-consciousness

Bodily self-consciousness is linked to multisensory integration and is particularly dependent on vestibular perception providing the brain with the main sensory cues about body motion and location in space. Vestibular and visual inputs are permanently balanced and integrated to encode the most optimal representation of the external world and of the observer in the central nervous system. Vection, an illusory self-motion experience induced only by visual stimuli, illustrates the fact that the visual and the vestibular systems share common neural underpinnings and a similar phenomenology. Optokinetic stimulation inducing vection and direct vestibular stimulation induce whole-body motion sensations that can be used to explore multisensory interactions. A failure in visuo-vestibular integration, artificially induced by the methods of cognitive psychology or in pathological conditions, has also been reported to altered own body perception and bodily self-consciousness. The respective contributions of the vestibular and visual systems to bodily self-consciousness amongst other polymodal sensory mechanisms, and the neural correlates of visuo-vestibular convergence, should be better understood. We first performed a neuroimaging study of brain regions where optokinetic and vestibular stimuli converge, using 7T functional magnetic resonance imaging in individual subjects. We identified three main regions of convergence: (1) the depth of supramarginal gyrus or retroinsular cortex, (2) the surface of supramarginal gyrus at the temporo-parietal junction, (3) and the posterior part of middle temporal gyrus and superior temporal sulcus. Then, we aimed to induce the embodiment of an external fake rubber hand through visuo-tactile conflict - the so-called rubber hand illusion paradigm, and studied how this integration is modulated by vection. Subjects experiencing vection in the direction of the rubber hand mislocalised the position of their real hand towards the rubber hand indicating that visuo-vestibular stimuli can enhance visuo-tactile integration. We also investigated if visuo-proprioceptive and tactile integration in peripersonal space could be dynamically updated based on the congruency of visual and proprioceptive feedback. A pair of rubber hands or feet provided visual feedback. Fake and real limbs were crossed or uncrossed. We showed that sensory cues were integrated in peripersonal space, dynamically reshaped but only for hands. Finally, we investigated a rare case of an illusory own body perception in an epileptic patient suffering from multiple daily disembodiments during seizures. Seizures were associated to a focal cortical microdysplasia juxtaposed to a developmental venous anomaly in the left angular gyrus, a brain region known to be important for visuo-vestibular integration and bodily self-consciousness. Our results characterize the inferior parietal lobule as a crucial structure in merging visual, vestibular, tactile and proprioceptive inputs, allowing the emergence of the global and unified experience of being “I.” Multisensory body representation can be reshaped transiently using visual and vestibular signals or in relation to a medical condition affecting the temporo-parietal junction. The integration of visual and vestibular signals, aims to adapt dynamically our internal representations to constant changes occurring in our environment.

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