Introduction: Distinguishing conversion disorder from malingering presents a significant challenge as the diagnosis ultimately depends on the patient's subjective report and the clinician's suspicion of an intention to deceive. Using hypnosis to manipulate the intentionality of movement inhibition in the same subjects, we used positron emission tomography (PET) to determine whether failure to move during intentionally simulated and subjectively experienced paralysis is mediated by different neural structures.
Methods: Using a within-subject design, 12 normal, hypnotised subjects were tested under two paralysis conditions during the same scanning session. Half of the scans were performed with the suggestion that the left leg was paralysed (subjectively experienced paralysis condition) and half with the leg normal but with the instruction that paralysis should be feigned (intentionally simulated paralysis condition).
Results: Relative increases in brain activation were seen in the right orbitofrontal cortex, right cerebellum, left thalamus, and left putamen during subjectively experienced paralysis compared to intentionally simulated paralysis, although a previously reported activation of the right anterior cingulate cortex was not seen. During intentionally simulated paralysis compared to subjectively experienced paralysis relative increases in brain activation were seen in the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, and a number of right posterior cortical structures.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that subjectively experienced paralysis has a different neural basis to intentionally simulated paralysis. These findings have theoretical and clinical implications for malingering and related attempts to unravel the neuropsychological basis for conversion hysteria.