Javier Bello Ruiz, Olaf Blanke, Matteo Franza, Mattia Pinardi, Thomas Schmidlin, Andrea Serino, Marco Solcà, Marianne Anke Stephan
Previous evidence highlighted the multisensory-motor origin of embodiment - that is, the experience of having a body and of being in control of it - and the possibility of experimentally manipulating it. For instance, an illusory feeling of embodiment towards a fake hand can be triggered by providing synchronous visuo-tactile stimulation to the hand of participants and to a fake hand or by asking participants to move their hand and observe a fake hand moving accordingly (rubber hand illusion). Here, we tested whether it is possible to manipulate embodiment not through stimulation of the participant's hand, but by directly tapping into the brain's hand representation via non-invasive brain stimulation. To this aim, we combined transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), to activate the hand corticospinal representation, with virtual reality (VR), to provide matching (as contrasted to non-matching) visual feedback, mimicking involuntary hand movements evoked by TMS. We show that the illusory embodiment occurred when TMS pulses were temporally matched with VR feedback, but not when TMS was administered outside primary motor cortex, (over the vertex) or when stimulating motor cortex at a lower intensity (that did not activate peripheral muscles). Behavioural (questionnaires) and neurophysiological (motor-evoked-potentials, TMS-evoked-movements) measures further indicated that embodiment was not explained by stimulation per se, but depended on the temporal coherence between TMS-induced activation of hand corticospinal representation and the virtual bodily feedback. This reveals that non-invasive brain stimulation may replace the application of external tactile hand cues and motor components related to volition, planning and anticipation.