Assimilation of virtual legs and perception of floor texture by complete paraplegic patients receiving artificial tactile feedback
Spinal cord injuries disrupt bidirectional communication between the patient's brain and body. Here, we demonstrate a new approach for reproducing lower limb somatosensory feedback in paraplegics by remapping missing leg/foot tactile sensations onto the skin of patients' forearms. A portable haptic display was tested in eight patients in a setup where the lower limbs were simulated using immersive virtual reality (VR). For six out of eight patients, the haptic display induced the realistic illusion of walking on three different types of floor surfaces: beach sand, a paved street or grass. Additionally, patients experienced the movements of the virtual legs during the swing phase or the sensation of the foot rolling on the floor while walking. Relying solely on this tactile feedback, patients reported the position of the avatar leg during virtual walking. Crossmodal interference between vision of the virtual legs and tactile feedback revealed that patients assimilated the virtual lower limbs as if they were their own legs. We propose that the addition of tactile feedback to neuroprosthetic devices is essential to restore a full lower limb perceptual experience in spinal cord injury (SCI) patients, and will ultimately, lead to a higher rate of prosthetic acceptance/use and a better level of motor proficiency.