Imperceptible somatosensory stimulation alters sensorimotor background rhythm and connectivity.
Nierhaus T., Forschack N., Piper SK., Holtze S., Krause T., Taskin B., Long X., Stelzer J., Margulies DS., Steinbrink J., Villringer A.
Most sensory input to our body is not consciously perceived. Nevertheless, it may reach the cortex and influence our behavior. In this study, we investigated noninvasive neural signatures of unconscious cortical stimulus processing to understand mechanisms, which (1) prevent low-intensity somatosensory stimuli from getting access to conscious experience and which (2) can explain the associated impediment of conscious perception for additional stimuli. Stimulation of digit 2 in humans far below the detection threshold elicited a cortical evoked potential (P1) at 60 ms, but no further somatosensory evoked potential components. No event-related desynchronization was detected; rather, there was a transient synchronization in the alpha frequency range. Using the same stimulation during fMRI, a reduced centrality of contralateral primary somatosensory cortex (SI) was found, which appeared to be mainly driven by reduced functional connectivity to frontoparietal areas. We conclude that after subthreshold stimulation the (excitatory) feedforward sweep of bottom-up processing terminates in SI preventing access to conscious experience. We speculate that this interruption is due to a predominance of inhibitory processing in SI. The increase in alpha activity and the disconnection of SI from frontoparietal areas are likely correlates of an elevated perception threshold and may thus serve as a gating mechanism for the access to conscious experience.