Wheelchair-bound individuals with spinal cord injuries (SCI) perceive their wheelchairs as part of their body, not extensions of immobile limbs, suggesting that the human brain can learn to treat relevant prostheses as a substitute for a non-working body part.

In a recent study published in PLOS ONE, researchers collected reports detailing experiences of wheelchair use among 55 wheelchair-bound individuals with spinal cord injury to determine whether bodily assimilation of a relevant external tool, such as a wheelchair, develops from altered sensory and motor inputs.

Study results showed that, among all patients, the regular use of a wheelchair induced the perception that the body’s edges are not fixed, but are plastic and flexible to include the wheelchair , independent of time since injury or previous wheelchair use.

In particular, patients with lesions in the lower spinal cord and with loss of movement and sensation in the legs but who retained upper body movement showed a higher degree of functional embodiment than those with lesions in the upper spinal cord and impairment in the entire body, according to study results.

“The corporeal awareness of the tool emerges not merely as an extension of the body but as a substitute for, and part of, the functional self,” MariellaPazzaglia, PhD, of Sapienza University and the IRCCS Fondazione Santa Lucia of Rome in Italy, and colleagues stated in the study.

For more information:

Pazzaglia M. PLoS One. 2013;doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058312.

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