Spinal cord injury affects the interplay between visual and sensorimotor representations of the body
The brain integrates multiple sensory inputs, including somatosensory and visual inputs, to produce a representation of the body. Spinal cord injury (SCI) interrupts the communication between brain and body and the effects of this deafferentation on body representation are poorly understood. We investigated whether the relative weight of somatosensory and visual frames of reference for body representation is altered in individuals with incomplete or complete SCI (affecting lower limbs' somatosensation), with respect to controls. To study the influence of afferent somatosensory information on body representation, participants verbally judged the laterality of rotated images of feet, hands, and whole-bodies (mental rotation task) in two different postures (participants' body parts were hidden from view). We found that (i) complete SCI disrupts the influence of postural changes on the representation of the deafferented body parts (feet, but not hands) and (ii) regardless of posture, whole-body representation progressively deteriorates proportionally to SCI completeness. These results demonstrate that the cortical representation of the body is dynamic, responsive, and adaptable to contingent conditions, in that the role of somatosensation is altered and partially compensated with a change in the relative weight of somatosensory versus visual bodily representations.