“Tricking the Brain” Using Immersive Virtual Reality: Modifying the Self-Perception Over Embodied Avatar Influences Motor Cortical Excitability and Action Initiation

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 15 (2022)
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Abstract

To offer engaging neurorehabilitation training to neurologic patients, motor tasks are often visualized in virtual reality. Recently introduced head-mounted displays allow to realistically mimic the body of the user from a first-person perspective in a highly immersive VR environment. In this immersive environment, users may embody avatars with different body characteristics. Importantly, body characteristics impact how people perform actions. Therefore, alternating body perceptions using immersive VR may be a powerful tool to promote motor activity in neurologic patients. However, the ability of the brain to adapt motor commands based on a perceived modified reality has not yet been fully explored. To fill this gap, we “tricked the brain” using immersive VR and investigated if multisensory feedback modulating the physical properties of an embodied avatar influences motor brain networks and control. Ten healthy participants were immersed in a virtual environment using an HMD, where they saw an avatar from first-person perspective. We slowly transformed the surface of the avatar from human to stone. We enforced this visual change by repetitively touching the real arm of the participant and the arm of the avatar with a hammer, while progressively replacing the sound of the hammer against skin with stone hitting sound via loudspeaker. We applied single-pulse transcranial magnetic simulation to evaluate changes in motor cortical excitability associated with the illusion. Further, to investigate if the “stone illusion” affected motor control, participants performed a reaching task with the human and stone avatar. Questionnaires assessed the subjectively reported strength of embodiment and illusion. Our results show that participants experienced the “stone arm illusion.” Particularly, they rated their arm as heavier, colder, stiffer, and more insensitive when immersed with the stone than human avatar, without the illusion affecting their experienced feeling of body ownership. Further, the reported illusion strength was associated with enhanced motor cortical excitability and faster movement initiations, indicating that participants may have physically mirrored and compensated for the embodied body characteristics of the stone avatar. Together, immersive VR has the potential to influence motor brain networks by subtly modifying the perception of reality, opening new perspectives for the motor recovery of patients.

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