Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The sense of the body is deeply rooted in humans, and it can be experimentally manipulated by inducing illusions in at least two aspects: a subjective feeling of ownership and a proprioceptive sense of limb position. Previous studies mapped these different aspects onto anatomically distinct neuronal regions, with the ventral premotor cortex processing subjective experience of ownership and the inferior parietal lobule processing proprioceptive calibration. Lines of evidence suggest an involvement also of the cerebellum, but its precise role is not clear yet. To investigate the contribution of the cerebellum in the sense of body ownership, we applied the rubber-hand illusion paradigm in 28 patients affected by neurodegenerative cerebellar ataxia, selectively involving the cerebellum, and in 26 age-matched control participants. The rubber hand illusion is established by synchronous stroking of the participants' real unseen hand and a visible fake hand. Short asynchronous stroking does not bring about the illusion. We tested the subjective experience of the illusion, evaluated through a questionnaire and the proprioceptive drift of the real unseen hand toward the viewed rubber hand. In patients with cerebellar ataxia, we observed reduced sense of the subjective illusory experience specifically after synchronous stroking. In contrast, the proprioceptive drift was enhanced after synchronous and after asynchronous stimulation. These findings support the contention that the mechanisms underlying the presence of the illusion and the proprioceptive drift may be differently affected in different conditions. Impairment of the subjective sense of the illusion in cerebellar patients might hint at an involvement of cerebellar-premotor networks, whereas the proprioceptive drift typically associated with synchronous stroking appears to rely on other circuits, likely involving the cerebellum and the parietal regions.