BACKGROUND - A weakened sense of self may contribute to psychotic experiences. Body ownership, one component of self-awareness, can be studied with the rubber hand illusion (RHI). Watching a rubber hand being stroked while one's unseen hand is stroked synchronously can lead to a sense of ownership over the rubber hand, a shift in perceived position of the real hand, and a limb-specific drop in stimulated hand temperature. We aimed to assess the RHI in schizophrenia using quantifiable measures: proprioceptive drift and stimulation-dependent changes in hand temperature.
METHODS - The RHI was elicited in 24 schizophrenia patients and 21 matched controls by placing their unseen hand adjacent to a visible rubber hand and brushing real and rubber hands synchronously or asynchronously. Perceived finger location was measured before and after stimulation. Hand temperature was taken before and during stimulation. Subjective strength of the illusion was assessed by a questionnaire.
RESULTS - Across groups, the RHI was stronger during synchronous stimulation, indicated by self-report and proprioceptive drift. Patients reported a stronger RHI than controls. Self-reported strength of RHI was associated with schizotypy in controls Proprioceptive drift was larger in patients, but only following synchronous stimulation. Further, we observed stimulation-dependent changes in skin temperature. During right hand stimulation, temperature dropped in the stimulated hand and rose in the unstimulated hand. Interestingly, induction of RHI led to an out-of-body experience in one patient, linking body disownership and psychotic experiences.
CONCLUSIONS - The RHI is quantitatively and qualitatively stronger in schizophrenia. These findings suggest that patients have a more flexible body representation and weakened sense of self, and potentially indicate abnormalities in temporo-parietal networks implicated in body ownership. Further, results suggest that these body ownership disturbances might be at the heart of a subset of the pathognomonic delusions of passivity.