Sensory perception can be influenced by cognitive functions like attention and expectation. An emblematic case of this is the placebo effect, where a reduction in pain perception can be obtained by inducing expectation of benefit following a treatment. The current study assessed the behavioural and brain activity correlates of a placebo procedure inducing an enhancement of non-noxious somatic sensation. An experimental group was verbally suggested and surreptitiously conditioned about the effect of an inert cream in enhancing tactile perception, while a control group was informed about the actual inefficacy of the cream. Both groups received non-noxious electric shocks activating A-Beta fibres on the right index finger, before and after application of the cream in the same site. The behavioural and neurophysiological effects of this procedure were measured by a numerical rating scale of subjective perception and by recording cortical and subcortical somatosensory evoked potentials (SEPs). Although the intensity of stimulation was physically identical in the two sessions, the experimental group reported stronger tactile sensation after cream treatment than before. In parallel, the experimental group showed enhanced somatosensory cortical responses (N140, P200) after treatment, whereas subcortical and early-cortical SEP components did not change. We suggest that these findings reflect top-down modulation on tactile perception probably due to an interplay between expectation and attention and might rely on interactions between prefrontal and parietal brain regions.
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