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Brain. 2006 Aug;129(Pt 8):2211-23. Epub 2006 Jun 24.

Persistent hand motor commands in the amputees' brain.

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  • 1Institut des Sciences Cognitives, Bron, France.


The loss of a limb leads to sensorimotor modifications that are frequently accompanied by the vivid experience that the missing limb is still present, and that it can be moved at will. Furthermore, amputees can clearly distinguish between phantom movements of the fingers and of more proximal joints, like movements of the elbow. This phenomenon raises the question of whether these specific phantom movement experiences are translated into differentiated activity within the remaining muscles. We recorded stump muscle activity when above-elbow amputees voluntarily moved their phantom limb. Voluntary movements of the phantom hand triggered specific patterns of stump muscle activity, which differed from activity recorded in the same muscle groups during movements of the proximal limb. This result indicates that the brain's motor areas can be differentially activated according to the phantom movement the patient intends to perform, and suggests that hand motor commands are preserved after amputation. To further understand the interaction between central commands and sensory feedback in the perception of phantom movement we also measured stump muscle EMG activity in an amputee experiencing a frozen phantom limb, and in three below-elbow amputees with vivid phantom movements after inducing an ischaemic block. Failed attempts to move the paralysed phantom limb always resulted in the same EMG pattern, no matter what type of phantom movement was attempted, while ischaemic nerve block reduced or eliminated the ability to voluntarily move the phantom limb and produced a dramatic reduction in the amplitude of stump muscle EMG activity. Our data suggest that the experience of phantom hand movement involves the activation of hand motor commands. We propose that preserved hand movement representations re-target the stump muscles to express themselves and that when these representations are voluntarily accessible they can instruct the remaining muscles to move in such a way as if the limb is still there.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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