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Eur J Pain. 2014 Aug;18(7):1040-8. doi: 10.1002/j.1532-2149.2014.00451.x. Epub 2014 Jan 21.

Modulation of pain threshold by virtual body ownership.

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1
Institut d'Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS), Barcelona, Spain; EVENT-Lab, Facultat de Psicologia, Universitat de Barcelona, Spain.

Abstract

BACKGROUND:

Appropriate sensorimotor correlations can result in the illusion of ownership of exogenous body parts. Nevertheless, whether and how the illusion of owning a new body part affects human perception, and in particular pain detection, is still poorly investigated. Recent findings have shown that seeing one's own body is analgesic, but it is not known whether this effect is transferable to newly embodied, but exogenous, body parts. In recent years, results from our laboratory have demonstrated that a virtual body can be felt as one's own, provided realistic multisensory correlations.

METHODS:

The current work aimed at investigating the impact of virtual body ownership on pain threshold. An immersive virtual environment allowed a first-person perspective of a virtual body that replaced the own. Passive movement of the index finger congruent with the movement of the virtual index finger was used in the 'synchronous' condition to induce ownership of the virtual arm. The pain threshold was tested by thermal stimulation under four conditions: (1) synchronous movements of the real and virtual fingers; (2) asynchronous movements; (3) seeing a virtual object instead of an arm; and (4) not seeing any limb in real world.

RESULTS:

Our results show that, independently of attentional and stimulus adaptation processes, the ownership of a virtual arm per se can significantly increase the thermal pain threshold.

CONCLUSIONS:

This finding may be relevant for the development and improvement of digital solutions for rehabilitation and pain treatment.

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