Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Electrophysiological recordings in monkeys have now revealed several brain regions that contain bimodal visuotactile neurons capable of responding to either tactile or visual stimuli placed on or near the hands, arms, and face. These cells have now been found in frontal, parietal, and subcortical areas of the monkey brain, suggesting a cortical network of neurons that preferentially represent near peripersonal space. The degree to which the visual responses of such cells rely on input from the primary visual cortex and the extent to which they may contribute to visual perception is not completely understood. Nonetheless, recent neuropsychological studies suggest that a similar representation of near space may be bimodally coded in humans as well. Given the accumulating evidence for specialized processing of visual stimuli placed near the hands and arms, we hypothesized that arm position may be capable of modulating human visual ability. Here we report the case of WM, who lost his ability to see in his left visual hemifield after sustaining damage to his right primary visual cortex. Interestingly, the placement of WM's left arm into his “blind” field resulted in significantly better detection of left visual field stimuli compared to when his hand was placed in his lap at midline. Moreover, we found this attenuation to be confined to stimuli presented within reaching distance (unless a tool that extended WM's reach was held while he performed the test). These findings are highly consistent with the characteristics of the bimodal visuo-tactile neurons that have been described in monkeys. Thus, it seems that arm position can modulate human visual ability, even after damage to the primary visual cortex. This study provides an exciting bridge between monkey neurophysiology and human visual capacity while also offering a novel approach for improving visual defects acquired via cortical injury.